Welcome to the VeloNews cycling podcast, where we discuss the latest trends, news, and controversies in the world of cycling.
American Robin Carpenter found himself in the deep end of the European peloton this past season. His Rally Pro cycling team made a big push to race more in Europe, and Carpenter has plenty of exciting stories from the experience.
He explains how he manages to find breakaways that succeed, what it is like to be up against WorldTour heavies, and why pro cyclists always get married in October.
This episode of the VeloNews podcast is sponsored by Health IQ. To get a free quote and save money on life insurance, go to HealthIQ.com/velonews
Quick-Step’s 2018 franchise record haul hit the crest of the wave over the weekend. Barely hours after its icing on the cake win at Guangxi — bringing its 2018 haul to 73 wins — the team is hoping to keep the wheels from coming off.
With rumored and confirmed departures of key riders, the big question is can Patrick Lefevere and co. keep its winning lineup together even with the arrival of a new title sponsor Deceuninck for 2019.
“It’s simple — you always have to keep fighting,” said team boss Patrick Lefevere. “We have had a big year because we have developed our riders. We have many riders who are winning races.”
By any measure, Quick-Step has had a tremendous season. It topped its franchise-record wins from a previous team-best of 71 wins in the Mapei glory days in 2000. Quick-Step’s 73 wins this year come close to the Columbia-HTC’s recent team-record of 85 wins in 2009 when the team was flying high with Mark Cavendish and André Greipel.
Quick-Step was competitive across the entire season, winning from the season-opener in the Santos Tour Down Under and taking “Ws” in the season-closer at the Tour of Guangxi. In between it won stage races, reached the podium in grand tours, and dominated the northern classics.
Quick-Step put three of its riders atop the most-win lists for the season. Elia Viviani led the way with 18 victories, with Julian Alaphillipe ranked fourth with 12. Fernando Gaviria won nine races to be tied for eighth on the season’s wins list.
Quick-Step’s bounty with 73 wins dwarfs the rest of the peloton. Team Sky ranked second with 43 wins and Mitchelton-Scott was third with 37.
There is a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in the peloton. Quick-Step’s 73 wins equal the season-long-haul of the bottom five teams. Ag2r La Mondiale, Sunweb, UAE-Emirates, EF Education First-Drapac, and Katusha had a combined season total of 57 victories. Quick-Step runs on a budget of around $18 million per year, while Team Sky leads the WorldTour with a budget estimated more than $35 million per year.
There are a lot of reasons for this, and not all of them are purely financial. Sky has cycling’s biggest budget but UAE-Emirates, with one of the largest pocketbooks in the peloton, won 12 races in 2018. Quick-Step’s budget is middle of the pack, but it won thanks to a mix of veterans and emerging youthful talent.
Not many teams have invested as much in developing young riders as Quick-Step. Leading the way as talent scout was Matxin Fernández, now lead sport director at UAE-Emirates. Fernández helped recruit many of the young stars making an impact at Quick-Step today.
Lefevere and team owner Zdenek Bakala invested heavily in youth, and it paid off handsomely in 2018. Many of the team’s big winners this year came through the Klein Constantia development team that started in 2013.
Though it shuttered in late 2016, the team produced impressive talent during its four-year run, including Alaphilippe, Florian Sénéchel, Petr Vakoc, Patrik Konrad (now Bora-Hansgrohe), Schachman, Enric Mas, Remi Cavagna, and Ivan Garcia (now Bahrain-Merida).
“We are always developing young talent,” Lefevere said. “I remember when [Johan Museeuw] left, everyone said you are in trouble. Then we had the same thing when [Tom] Boonen retired. The team is here always.”
Thankfully for Lefevere, Deceuninck stepped up as a new sponsorship partner to assure the team’s immediate and near future.
The irony for Lefevere is that he is losing much of his team’s punch just when he finally appears to have some money in the bank.
Leading the exits is Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie in 2019), a winner of three races this year including Ronde van Vlaanderen, who is a beast in the classics when he’s on form. Other confirmed departures include budding Belgian stage racer Laurens De Plus (LottoNL-Jumbo in 2019), German sprinter Maximilian Schachman (Bora-Hansgrohe in 2019), with three wins in 2018, and Ecuadoran climbing promise Jhonathan Narvaez (Sky in 2019). Between those riders, the team won six races in 2018.
“I don’t have a chest to draw out money when I would like,” Lefevere told Sporza last month.
Rumors are flying thick that Fernando Gaviria is poised to join UAE-Emirates. The Colombian is a proven winner across stage races, with nine wins this year including two stages in the Tour de France despite an early season injury that kept him out of the spring classics. Gaviria, 24, is poised for greatness, but it appears there isn’t enough room on the Quick-Step roster for both Gaviria and Elia Viviani.
Another rider on the rumor list was Enric Mas, who rode to second overall at the Vuelta a España, but he re-upped with the team through 2019.
“If we do lose Fernando [Gaviria], we will still have Elia [Viviani],” Lefevere told Het Laaste Nieuws. “And it is now time for our young sprinters to step forward as well.”
The challenge now for Lefevere is to keep the wheels on the cart just when things are rolling along smoother than ever before.
Following up their wins on Saturday, Sunny Gilbert (Van Dessel) and Kerry Werner (Kona) won day two of DCCX at the Armed Forces Retirement Home on the north side of Washington, D.C.
With his win, Werner took the overall Parkway CX Trophy. Gilbert nearly won the women’s title but couldn’t quite overtake Rebecca Fahringer (Kona).
Gilbert overcomes an early crash
Three-time DCCX winner Arley Kemmerer (Fearless Femme) hit out first in the women’s race, taking the holeshot. Gilbert wasted no time moving to the head of the field, but she slid out on a corner soon thereafter.
“I had a great start. We were all riding well. It was fast,” said Gilbert. “I was right behind Arley [Kemmerer], and then I passed Arley. Then we hit a loose corner and I just laid the bike down. Six or seven women passed me. I got up, made sure the chain was still on, and just jumped back on my bike. I was just patient and found my opening on one of the off-camber corners. I passed four women on the inside and then we had a race.”
After things settled down, Gilbert, Fahringer, and Kemmerer were at the front.
By the halfway point, Kemmerer had faded out of the picture, and that’s when Fahringer had some troubles of her own.
First, the Kona rider flatted, forced to ride the rim to the pit.
“I haven’t flatted in three years. I flatted and had to ride it for a while, drifted back to Sunny coming in with one to go,” said Fahringer about her mishap on the course. “I pitted. It was a slow exchange.”
She found herself about 10-15 seconds behind. Fahringer put in a big effort and came within about three seconds of Gilbert, but then disaster struck again.
“I was within three seconds, and the same reason I crashed yesterday, I got excited about winning a bike race,” Fahringer said. “I slid out and hit my rear derailleur, which went into crash mode. After that, it was just fighting for the series. I managed to eke out a podium.”
Caroline Nolan (Voler-Easton) out-sprinted Fahringer for second place, about 17 seconds behind Gilbert.
“I just felt super flat the first two laps and then the third lap in, I think it was the prime lap, everything started clicking,” said Nolan, who finished third on Saturday. “I started feeling confident on my lines. And then the last lap, I was able to capitalize on every little climb and get a little bit ahead. Things just worked out.”
Werner wins sixth DCCX in a row
In a remarkable show of consistency, Werner won his sixth consecutive DCCX in the men’s race, following up 2016 and 2017 when he also swept the weekend races.
Werner took the lead from the gun and was joined by Travis Livermon (The Endurance Collective) and Eric Thompson (MSpeedwax).
“Right at the start, got the holeshot and settled in. The front group established itself, Travis, Eric, and I.
The trio rode together for the first two laps but after that, Werner took control of the race, riding off the front alone to win the prime lap.
“Instead of the prime being on the first lap, it was on the third lap,” he said. “My goal was to get the prime, $250. So I sent it really hard and just opened up a big gap. It came out to over 15 seconds, so I just kept the throttle on.”
In part, he was able to make his move because he rode all of the course’s features, not dismounting a single time.
“One thing I was proud of was not getting off my bike at all this race, which was cool,” said Werner.
Werner said he also thought the windy conditions made it difficult for Livermon and Thompson to cooperatively chase him down.
“With the wind today, once I had a bit of a gap, I knew that Travis and Eric weren’t going to come after me, they were going to play games with each other because nobody would do work in the headwind,” Werner added. “I kind of knew once I had that gap that it would be me, unless something weird happened.”
Thompson out-sprinted Livermon for second but in the waning laps, he almost cracked.
“[Livermon] put down an unreal two-to-go lap, and I almost lost him,” said Thompson. “It took everything to just hold his wheel. Luckily, it came down to where I wanted to go, right before the pavement.”
Livermon said it was demoralizing to put in a massive effort and not drop his rival.
“I gave it everything I could with two to go. I didn’t shake Eric, so that kind of blew my confidence a little bit,” Livermon said. “But I kept trying. And then it came down to the sprint. He passed me right before we hit the pavement. I couldn’t believe he passed me, coming into the pavement and the wind. We opened up the sprint and I pulled out of my pedal, and that was it. I don’t know if I would have got him or not, but it would have been a lot closer.”
This August, Danny Pate ended his professional road racing career nearly two decades after his splashy entry to the pro ranks. In September 1998, Pate won the world title in the U23 time trial, a feat that no American had accomplished beforehand (and only Taylor Phinney has completed since). Pate signed his first pro contract with Italy’s Saeco team. He departed after just one season and returned to race in the domestic peloton. For years, American fans wondered if Pate would get a chance to compete in Europe again.
The opportunity came in 2008 when Garmin-Chipotle was invited to the Tour de France. Pate nearly won a stage, and the result set him up for a long career in the WorldTour, where he rode for Garmin, HTC-Highroad, and Team Sky.
Pate closed out his career after three seasons racing back in the United States with Rally Pro Cycling. VeloNews caught up with Pate to reflect on his time in the sport.
VeloNews: You just finished your last professional bicycle race. What are your emotions at the moment?
Danny Pate: Mixed emotions. I’m happy to kind of feel done. I actually feel done. I’ve done enough where I feel lucky enough to have gotten it all out. All of me is out there on the road. I have no regrets, and that’s the main thing that is allowing me to stop.
VN: A lot of racers late in their careers have that “one more year” mentality. Did you feel that way in the last few years of your career?
DP: Probably for the last eight years! [laughs] Actually, the last couple of years for sure, and especially last year. Physically, it’s gotten harder every year after I turned 35. You just don’t recover, and it gets worse exponentially. The team is going to bigger and better races next year, and those races — I’ll be 40 next year — 40-year-olds belong behind the computer screen or in the car or something, not on the bike.
VN: What’s the result that you’re most going to hold on to?
DP: Just the experience. I came from the middle of the country, Colorado, middle-class family, and I’ve been able to go all around the world and get an education by travel. I was racing so much I didn’t go to college, so with my education via professional sports I definitely didn’t learn as much as some people in grad school maybe, but it gave me a lot. Seeing the world through tunnel vision on the bike, and getting to go to places like the Giro, Tour de France … There were some results in there too, whatever they were, some were okay. But really, just going was the big thing. And being in some successful environments, to work together with some successful teams and successful groups of people and learning how all that works.
VN: The race during that era that I always think of is the 2005 U.S. national championships. In the final group, there’s you, Chris Horner, and Chris Wherry. Wherry attacks and goes on to win. Do you ever think about that result and the way it played out?
DP: A little bit here and there. It’s so long ago it’s a little foggy. That was one of my better results as a young American on a not-so-powerful team. That was in the years when Philly was big, when the Euros were coming over, and it may have been one of the only all-American podiums when the Euros were there. So, that was a special race, that one. That was the last year before I went back to Europe, so I said, I might as well give this a try. It was a pivotal year for me.
VN: In 2008, you came really close to winning a stage of the Tour de France in Slipstream’s first year. What are your memories from your first Tour experience?
DP: It was kind of like, ‘Wow, wow this is why people race bikes.’ From parking lot crits in Colorado to Wednesday night worlds around the U.S. … the atmosphere was amazing, the energy, the crowds, the amount of people that love and care for the sport instead of here [in the U.S.], where everyone in a Ram truck is trying to run you over and make you get off the road. It was amazing to see just how much they embrace the sport and love it in Europe.
VN: Soon after that debut you’re riding on HTC-Highroad and working for Mark Cavendish, helping him win the green jersey. I understand he repaid you with a pretty interesting gift. What did you get from Cav?
DP: He gave us all watches. It was the most expensive gift I think I’ve ever been given. A generous gift. Everyone complains about Cav — you either hate Cav or you love Cav, which is great for the sport. Cav can be your worst enemy if he’s not your teammate and your best friend if he is your teammate. He’s still my friend. But he bought all the riders and directors green Rolexs. He had to wait to order them until after he won, so it took a little while to arrive. And when it came it was green. I was thinking, “Why is it green? Why would you buy a green Rolex?” Then it came to me. It took me longer to get it then it should have [laughs].
VN: You finished your career as a member of Rally Cycling. What role did you play and what type of advice did you give to the younger riders on the team?
DP: I think I’ll steal a quote from [Robin] Carpenter: “You just need to have some talent and don’t quit.” That really is his quote, and that really is what it takes. I think that is exactly what I’ve done my whole career. I was never the most talented rider. There were plenty of [Dave] Zabriskies out there that were better than me. I kind of made my own way and did the things I thought were right, and got some places that I enjoyed, all through professional cycling. I definitely had a lot of help from people along the way. My family helped me out, showing me the way, giving me a good work ethic.
The American scene helped me a lot in the middle of my career. That’s why I love Rally. They’re supporting a lot of guys like Robin Carpenter, Colin Joyce, these riders that are really good, but they haven’t gotten that break to get on a WorldTour team. These are the kind of guys that should be on Trek, but they don’t hire them for some reason. So, Rally has 16 of them.
It isn’t easy for college kids to travel across the country for a national championship bike race. Most are on limited budgets, fitting in training rides around classes, and they have to negotiate all of the travel coordination from flights to rental cars to lodging.
This weekend’s collegiate mountain bike nationals took another unexpectedly difficult twist for the University of Vermont team when they arrived in Missoula, Montana, only to find their bikes were destroyed in a fire.
Something seemed wrong Thursday morning. The bikes were expected to arrive via FedEx Wednesday night, around the time their flight landed. The team had shipped most of their bikes across the country to avoid exorbitant airline fees. They did some errands Thursday, hoping to pick up their bikes in time to go pre-ride the race courses.
As they were unloading groceries at their VRBO, a fateful call came in from FedEx. The truck had caught on fire, and the bikes were likely destroyed.
“We were not sure if they existed anymore,” said UVM’s Nick Lando. “Then we start scrambling.”
Lando and his teammate Mazie Hayden had flown with their bikes, so while the other UVM riders scoured Missoula for rental bikes and called every company they could think of, Lando drove Hayden up to the venue so she could practice on the downhill track. After all, UVM was the best team in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference this season, and Hayden was the top downhiller.
While they were up at Marshall Mountain, another teammate retrieved the bikes from the burned-out FedEx truck on the side of a road near town. The bikes were in pretty bad shape.
“The conditions of bikes varied from totally turned to ash and not salvageable to the carbon in the frames had unraveled themselves,” said Lando. “We put our heads together, building bikes as quick as we could, taking parts and making Frankenstein bikes so we could get XC riders on bikes.”
Fortunately, as they pulled apart their burnt bikes, a better option came up when Sarah Spencer made a phone call to Trek Bicycles. She spoke to Jed Gunn in e-commerce, who passed her along to Gary Whitebird in customer care. Whitebird had raced collegiate as both an undergrad and a graduate student and jumped at the chance to help save the weekend for the “Catamounts.”
“They called in, kind of in a tough spot,” said Whitebird. “A lot of us here have ridden, raced, we all know that situation, especially in collegiate.”
Late on Thursday, Whitebird and his team scrambled to find an option. They realized their California warehouse was the only option to get bikes shipped this late in the day.
“They only had a matter of minutes to pick the bikes off the shelf to get them on a UPS trailer to hit that deadline,” Whitebird added.
Trek reached out to one of their dealers in Missoula, Open Road Bicycle and Nordic, to see if they could build the bikes on short notice. “They didn’t even question it. They just said hey there’s a team that needs help, absolutely,” Whitebird said.
Although the eight bikes were shipped overnight, the cross-country races started at 8:30 a.m. Friday, so the UVM team had to source a few spare bikes from other teams — Fort Lewis College and University of Montana at Bozeman. Riding his own bike that he brought on the plane, Lando ended up second in the club division. The rest of the UVM riders were just happy to be toeing the line after a crazy 24 hours.
“Everyone had fun; everyone party-biked it,” said Lando. “There’s some character-building when people showing up on the start with scorched jerseys that smell like smoke.”
Racing continues Saturday with the short track and dual slalom races and Sunday with the downhill and team relay.
UVM’s riders will be aboard new bikes, and back in Wisconsin at Trek HQ, the Catamounts will probably have a few new fans following the action from afar.
“We’re really excited that we could help these group of kids,” said Whitebird. “With a team effort, everything was able to come together.”
The scene in Paris had all the trappings of a poster-perfect Tour de France moment. Geraint Thomas sparkled as a feel-good winner in the yellow jersey. The Champs-Élysées was packed and the Arc de Triomphe provided the frame. Jets flew overhead releasing vapor trails of the red, white, and blue French “tricolore.”
Yet what started three weeks earlier under a cloud of fury in the Vendée ended wearily in Paris. Just like the Tour of 20 years ago when the Festina Affair nearly brought the race to its knees, there was a sense of relief upon arriving in the City of Light.
“This Tour was a rough ride,” race director Christian Prudhomme told Le Parisien. “With the Froome case, the hot temperatures, the crashes, the protest that blocked the road, and one idiot on Alpe d’Huez …”
With that, Prudhomme summed up what was indeed a challenging Tour that revealed deep fracture lines inside the sport’s most important race.
Chris Froome’s long-running salbutamol case and the subsequent bungled ruling cast a stench that lingered for weeks. A larger, almost unspoken threat of a terrorist attack loomed ominously in the background, only to be thrust into the open as a legitimate menace with cement-block road closures, machine-gun toting police, and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling starts and finishes.
Tensions ran deep from the start when French fans gleefully booed Froome and Team Sky at the usually G-rated team presentation. That continued as French fans hissed and jeered at the four-time champion almost daily as he signed in at stage starts. The hapless Froome was later spat upon, had liquid thrown at him, and was even shoved once. Someone in an unruly mob on Alpe d’Huez knocked Vincenzo Nibali out of the race and another tried to grab Thomas as he sprinted toward the line. Protesters stopped the peloton and over-aggressive police sprayed them with tear gas that later wafted onto the peloton. At times, it seemed as if the Tour was unraveling at the seams.
“It’s a disgrace to see it happen during the race,” Froome said of the spitting and hooliganism. “The Tour is supposed to represent a celebration, and when people come to jeer and protest, maybe that’s not my idea of a party.”
And despite a unique course that blended gravel roads with the return of the fearsome cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and an innovative 65-kilometer climbing stage in the Pyrenees, the undeniable force of Sky and its $35 million budget could not be stopped. Fans keen on witnessing an exciting fight for yellow saw another Sky knockout in round one.
It seemed not only an entire nation was growing tired of Team Sky’s dominance, but sports fans across the globe were tuning out as well. TV ratings dipped in some countries and roadside crowds were noticeably smaller.
By the time Sky methodically and impassively disassembled its rivals to win another yellow jersey, seamlessly substituting Froome with Thomas at the top of what L’Equipe likened as a “two-headed snake,” it was all too much for some to take.
“We cannot blame them for winning,” Prudhomme shrugged. “We have a machine that wins with three different heads [Bradley Wiggins, Froome, and Thomas] and they’re preparing for the sequel.”
Perhaps it was Sky’s dominance, or Froome’s lingering anti-doping case, or the combined weight of the socio-economic pressures gripping central Europe. For whatever reason, the 2018 Tour de France was held under the fog of malaise. At every turn, the race looked and felt smaller than Tours of years past. The various controversies that erupted during the three-week affair gave riders and journalists alike the feeling that fans were less than thrilled with cycling’s biggest show. Was this another typical Tour de France, an event by its very nature rife with controversy, jealousy, mishaps, and sore losers? Or was there something more stirring beneath the surface?
BY THE TIME THE Tour straggled into Paris, there were many flashing warning signs that this might be more than a one-year blip.
With Sky throttling the race yet again, fans were tuning out. Anecdotally, crowds felt smaller at the start and finish cities, and on some of the flatter stages, long stretches of the roadsides were empty. The famously raucous scene up Alpe d’Huez also lacked its usual energy. Race officials installed ropes along “Dutch Corner” in an effort to hold back the usually rowdy fans from The Low Countries.
Crowd size wasn’t the only metric that was down. After matching near-record highs in TV viewership in France in 2017, ratings took a hit across most of Europe. Even in France, overall viewership was down, from an average of 2.3 million viewers per stage to 2.1 million. Peak viewerships, usually measured at the end of each stage, were down 500,000 compared to last year. According to L’Equipe, during the final stage across the Pyrenees, held on a Friday afternoon, half of France’s television audience was watching the Tour, a strong indicator that the race had rebounded from its week one ratings dip.
Prudhomme blamed the low numbers on soccer’s World Cup tournament, which saw France win the overall title. The nation’s hyper-focus on soccer, he said, simply overshadowed cycling. “We expected a drop this year with the World Cup,” Prudhomme said. “With ‘les Bleus’ winning the title, it’s a small price to pay!”
Indeed, the World Cup hangover and an erupting scandal involving staffers of French President Emmanuel Macron pushed the Tour off the front pages for much of the summer.
But the viewership dip was not a French phenomenon. Every other European market showed a dip in 2018 as well. Italy was off 37 percent (no Nibali, no viewers) while the ever-faithful Spanish saw a dip of four percent. Even in the UK, which has fueled much of the growth in ASO’s bottom line over the past several years, viewership was down 15 percent for ITV.
It’s hard to say if the declining numbers will rebound next year or whether they present a more troubling trend for the Tour.
Much like other sports, the Tour is seeing a slow bleeding of its TV audiences as fans have more choices on where to watch the race. Websites and pirate feeds are new competition — ASO’s own Le Tour race center saw record numbers in 2018 — and social media is the new digital “town square,” where fans flock to sites such as Twitter to dissect each stage.
Another metric, though harder to measure, is star power. Lance Armstrong might have once been the most hated man in France — one newspaper ran a front-page headline that read “Welcome back, asshole” when he returned after retiring in 2005 — but he drew in crowds. As New York Times writer Ian Austen wrote this summer, he counted three American flags along the route during a stage that usually would see dozens during the Texan’s heyday. The Brits came over in swarms in the early Sky years, but Froome doesn’t seem to hold the same magnetic power over foreign fans as Wiggins or Armstrong ever did.
Bike tour companies say they’re still selling out their trips each July, but one operator said, “people are more interested in the castles and wine than they are in the bike race.”
There were some encouraging signs. NBC’s numbers were up slightly, three percent among the U.S. audience, with a 23 percent jump in the highly valued 18-49 demographic. Eurosport Spain also saw a 10 percent jump in its cable viewer numbers.
Everyone inside the Tour organization knows they need to do what they can to spice up the race and to deliver a product the public wants to watch.
“We always try to innovate, and it is our duty to make the course interesting,” Prudhomme said. “It’s a shame that the teams are only thinking about defending what they have. No one seems willing to risk in order to win. We want more fight, more suspense.”
Prudhomme’s solution, however, stood in stark contrast to the current state of the Tour de France. How do you create more fight, more suspense, when one team can dominate the race from start to finish?
AFTER THREE LONG WEEKS, Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué stepped out of a team car at the end of the Espelette time trial. The stage bookended what was a very long month for the Spaniard who once won five yellow jerseys in succession with Miguel Indurain. His mask of exasperation only served to amplify his gloom.
“We came here looking for more than we have been able to achieve,” Unzué said. “Each year, it’s easier for Sky to achieve something at the Tour and harder for the rest of us.”
Unzué’s sense of futility echoed across the Tour paddock as the race neared its inevitable end. Teams and riders left the 2018 Tour more dismayed than ever. A feeling of frustration spread across much of the race and Sky’s interminable domination dismayed just about everyone trying to snatch the yellow jersey.
“The thing is they have several ‘teams’ to bring,” said Sunweb’s Laurens Ten Dam, referring to Sky’s depth. “They have the numbers to bring strong teams to each grand tour. That’s their budget — Wout Poels makes 10 times more than I do.”
L’Equipe put it best with a front-page epithet that read: “Le règne sans fins” — the unending reign.
The stats don’t fully reveal the bleak reality. In what was its fourth grand tour victory in a row, Sky absolutely obliterated the peloton to win its sixth yellow jersey in seven Tours since 2012. Few outside the Sky retinue celebrated. Cycling’s most important bike race seemed on a never-ending replay loop. Sky’s ruthless and surgical domination of the Tour deflated everyone.
France’s great hope, Romain Bardet, seemed demoralized even before the Tour started, and didn’t put up much of a fight. After two-straight podium finishes, France’s latest and greatest hope resigned himself after crashes and mechanicals marred his first week. His gloominess in the mountains seemed to capture the anxiety of many.
“There seems to be no longer space for a rider like me who races instinctually,” Bardet said. “This is modern cycling, with a team packed with strong riders. [Sky] can capitalize on one or two big moments, and then race defensively.”
Indeed, for as strong and consistent as Thomas was throughout the Tour, he hardly attacked during the race. He didn’t need to. His rivals dropped like dominos all around him, crashing, abandoning, losing time, or suffering ill-timed mechanicals. All he had to do was follow the Sky train, with the last stop in Paris.
“The differences today are minimal between the best riders,” lamented Ag2r La Mondiale boss Vincent Lavenu. “Riders only have one or two matches to burn. And when they make a big effort, they pay in cash for it later. We still dream of the days when we could attack from very far away, but that is no longer the case. Sky has a strong team to ride tempo. This is modern cycling.”
Sky’s continuing dominance reconfirmed the quandary facing cycling’s most important stage race.
Traditionalists not only bemoan Sky’s dominance, but some even say that its highly effective and calculating manner of racing is snuffing the life out of the Tour.
“Today everything is measured to a millimeter,” UCI president David Lappartient said. “How many people are really captivated? In [soccer], you have these extraordinary comebacks, but we do not have that much on the Tour de France.”
Sky has perfected its high-tempo, conservative style of racing. Though much is made of Sky’s “marginal gains,” its tactical playbook is not so different than cycling’s other great dynasties. When a team has the strongest rider of its era and a budget to match, you hire the best riders to drill everyone else into the ground. And just like the other dynasties of Tour’s past — from Renault to Banesto to U.S. Postal Service — Sky has the pocketbook and the infrastructure to keep piling on. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to watch.
The French daily Le Monde put it this way: “Cycling has become mathematics, and Sky is best at adding up the numbers. And it’s terrible.”
While fans and media are dismayed at how the Tour appears predictable and boring — it never truly is, just ask Richie Porte who crashed out in an innocuous incident early in stage 9 — riders inside the peloton said Sky was simply racing to win.
“What’s the goal of the whole race? Is it the goal to make the race exciting? Or is it the goal to win the race?” asked UAE-Emirates’ Rory Sutherland. “We are not playing to the fans or the press or not playing to make it exciting. The goal is to win. That’s what they’ve done, and everyone says it’s boring, but it’s effective. Who wins the Tour? Sky does.”
And that’s the problem, at least to anyone expecting the unexpected.
THIS SUMMER’S DISSATISFACTION WAS more than just about Sky burnout. The ambiance in La Roche-sur-Yon bordered on incredulity when Froome was cleared in his long-running salbutamol case.
The nuances of the case were lost in the sea of negative headlines — particularly how it appeared the World Anti-Doping Agency did a major retreat on its salbutamol test — and no one bought into the narrative of an innocent rider being cleared. Instead, it was another well-funded, untouchable superstar gaming the system. After decrying a peloton at two speeds in the post-Festina era, this seemed to be justice at two speeds.
For many, Froome’s presence seemed to spoil the Tour even before it started.
“We are specialists in cycling,” said Quick-Step Floors manager Patrick Lefevere. “We love to shoot ourselves in the feet.”
Later came grumbling about how the UCI and other authorities mishandled the Froome salbutamol case following a leak in December. Lappartient received criticism for trying to play both sides, at once hoping to be the principled defender of clean sport while on the other hand appearing as a self-serving bureaucrat.
“The UCI should have played more of a United Nations ‘Kofi Annan role’ instead of putting oil on the fire with the Froome case, especially in France. That did not help,” said LottoNL-Jumbo manager Richard Plugge. “The UCI is our referee — either Froome is in the race, or he’s out of the race. That message could have been communicated way earlier.”
Ross Tucker, a South African sports scientist and vocal expert inside the anti-doping community, said the Froome case was a critical blow in cycling’s attempts at rebuilding its believability.
“It’s just another huge blow to the credibility of the anti-doping movement,” Tucker said. “Testing catches a small proportion of dopers, and then the legal processes underpinning the testing successfully sanction only a small proportion of those. And meanwhile, it’s hemorrhaging credibility at every step of the way.”
Despite anecdotal evidence that the peloton is cleaner than it’s ever been — confessed doper Thomas Dekker even went so far as to suggest he believes Froome is the cleanest Tour winner in history — many see Froome as the latest in a long list of suspicious Tour dominators.
Even if fans buy into the idea that the peloton is no longer fueled on EPO and blood bag transfusions, there is still a lot of tip-toeing up to the ethical line that leaves many uneasy.
Others simply don’t see a difference between the drugs of yesteryear and things like salbutamol, and therefore still question the cleanliness of the sport.
EF Education First-Drapac manager Jonathan Vaughters, who has championed clean cycling since his own personal doping admissions, said many of today’s fans simply refuse to or cannot see the new situation inside the peloton.
“That’s just not the reality,” Vaughters said. “I can say that all day, but nobody’s going to believe it. It’s not true and I think anyone inside the sport with any genuine knowledge is going to say it’s not true. Unfortunately, many people look at us skeptically.”
That ever-hardening skeptical view means trouble for Tour organizers trying to sell a cleaner sport when things like the Froome case keep bubbling up.
ADDING TO THE TOUR’S woes is something no one wants to publicly acknowledge — the fear of terrorism.
Race officials were so worried about a major terrorist attack it defanged cycling’s biggest party. The scene on Alpe d’Huez was neutered by security measures. As riders pedaled up cycling’s most famous climb, the peloton found barriers on the bottom and top four kilometers of the climb. Even more striking, when riders turned into Dutch Corner, usually packed with so many fans it’s hard for them to choose a line, they instead found dozens of police, and fans kept mutely behind barriers.
What had happened? Publicly, officials said it was to tamp down the rowdiness. Privately, it was part of a larger campaign to make one of the sport’s most vulnerable events as safe as possible.
“The Tour is so vulnerable, but no one wants to say it,” said veteran reporter Francois Thomazeau, the French journalist who broke the Festina Scandal in 1998. “It was obvious that the No. 1 priority this year for police and officials was to avoid an attack.”
Throughout this year’s Tour, a heavy police presence was one of the race’s major accents. Heavily armed police units were visible at every start and village along the route. Security guards searched bags and credentials of anyone trying to enter the race paddock or VIP village. Military vehicles and big blocks of cement cut off access roads. Bomb-sniffing dogs and an elite corps of undercover forces worked the crowds.
This year, 23,000 police and 6,000 firemen along with several thousand more private security personnel swarmed over the 2018 Tour. “It is the biggest single sporting event in France,” ministry spokesman Frederic de Lanouvelle told AFP at the beginning of the race. “The threat of terrorism is real during the entire Tour, and we will deploy all means necessary to ensure the full security for the event.” Police are jittery about large crowds in France, and rightly so. Starting with the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015 that left 17 dead, followed by the even more horrific Paris shootings later that year that left 113 dead, France was under a state of emergency until November 2017. When a terrorist plowed a truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, leaving 86 dead in 2016, many wondered if an event as open and accessible as the Tour had a place in the post-terrorism world. With such robust police presence, it seemed to have a chilling effect on the overall sensation that the Tour is France’s big summer fete. It was harder for fans to get to the race course, but for security officials that seemed a small price to pay.
Tour organizers, however, believe they found the right balance between security and maintaining the openness of the Tour.
“We never design the route thinking first about security,” said Thierry Gouvenou, the Tour’s lead course designer. “We always put the race first, and then build the security features around the stages.”
Nearly everyone agreed tempers were flaring more than usual along the side of the road this year. There was a level of hooliganism and rowdiness unseen before at the Tour.
“This year was the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said BMC’s Porte. “It does seem crazy to barrier off long sections, but maybe that’s what they need to start doing. Just look at what happened to Nibali. It should have never happened.”
More police and security officials and wider gaps between the fans and the racers might make it safer, but it will only dampen the unique spirit of what makes the Tour so special in the first place. The Tour knows it must walk a fine line between security and tradition, or it could lose what makes it so special.
DESPITE PLENTY OF GLOOM from some quarters, the Tour shows few signs of abating. Having Thomas ride triumphantly into Paris was a welcome salve for the haggard Tour organization.
The race continues to tower over other events on the international calendar and remains the central ambition for every team and rider in the peloton. The Tour remains the sun of the cycling solar system. Without it, the entire sport would wither on the vine.
The Tour also remains a cash cow and is a major driver of the estimated 45 million euros per year in profits for ownership company ASO. And until the family-run, privately held business sees a genuine downtick in profits, nothing major will likely change. Quite the contrary, ASO continues to push into new markets across Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. This summer, it revived the Tour of Germany in hopes of energizing Europe’s largest market.
The Tour, however, isn’t ignoring the warning signs. It knows there are real challenges to engaging the broader public as well as keeping fans safe and protected. There are a lot of ideas floating around on how to spice up the action — everything from a further reduction of team size to spending caps and banning race radios and power meters.
Everyone inside the Tour organization is well aware that if the Tour becomes predictable, fans will tune out permanently.
“We will always innovate to try to make the race more interesting and to push the riders to their limit,” said Gouvenou, who travels months every year on France’s back roads. “We will continue to mix classic design with new ideas, like the 65-kilometer short mountain stage we saw this year.”
The big mistake ASO could make would be to get too gimmicky or panic. Part of the allure of the Tour is the history; if they overreach, in an effort to meet the demands of today’s fickle and quickly changing media landscape, it could well backfire.
“I think the Tour today is more relevant than it’s ever been,” said French journalist Thomazeau. “Perhaps it is not as dear to the French heart as it was 30 or 40 years ago, but it’s become a worldwide sensation. France and the Tour have become synonymous.”
Despite the hiccups this year, Prudhomme is confident the Tour will endure. It’s going to take more than a few boring editions to kick the legs out from underneath a sporting event that dates back more than a century.
“I think next year we will see a strong anti-Sky block,” Prudhomme said. “I believe in Bardet, and next year we’ll have [Thibaut] Pinot. And with Dumoulin, Roglic, and, hopefully, Nibali, there will be a big fight.”
Hope springs eternal. And so it is at every Tour start.
Welcome to The Dirt, the weekly news round-up on what is happening in the worlds of gravel, mountain biking, and all things rough and dirty.
Back in June, Catharine Pendrel (Clif Bar) broke her left humerus in what seemed like an innocuous crash. This left the Olympic medalist off the bike for an extended period in the heart of the race season.
She returned to the World Cup in August and also raced world championships in Switzerland, where she was 14th. But she wanted to get in a bit more racing, so she continued on to the Swiss Epic stage race, which she won overall with fellow Canadian Haley Smith. Then, she came out for the final race of the Epic Rides Series in Bentonville, Arkansas. She nearly won that rainy 50-miler, only to be beaten in the very end by Erin Huck.
I caught up with two-time world champion at the Oz Trails Off-Road earlier this month to hear about how she has coped with injury this season.
VeloNews: Was that the worst injury of your career?
Catharine Pendrel: For sure. I broke two collarbones and a thumb, but this one was definitely the most severe. When I saw the X-rays, my heart dropped a little bit.
VN: I’m sure that reset everything for your season.
CP: Yeah for sure. I wasn’t super happy with the start of my season. But you come back from mediocre races and you recharge and you’re still motivated, and then it’s a week later — boom. I was optimistic at first and then the doctors were like, ‘Maybe you’ll be back for September.’ Luckily I beat that by quite a bit. I was back after 10 weeks. It was a slow process. I lost more than I desired in fitness. But I still think it was a good year. I ended it with good sensations even if the results didn’t always show. I’m happy with my form and it left me positive, motivated for next year.
VN: Is it still affecting you while you ride?
CP: No, not at all.
VN: You wrapped up your European season with 14th at worlds. Tell me about that.
CP: I moved into top-10, flatted with a lap and a half to go, and that was a bummer. Sometimes you can’t get the legs to come back after that. I felt really good until then. I’m happy with how I felt; the results will come eventually.
VN: Is it weird to be back in that part of the field being a multi-time world champion?
CP: It is. It’s really mentally challenging because mentally I’m still always riding for a top-five and you have to still keep that intensity for the fight even if it’s a different surrounding. There’s so many races where I look around and I’m in 14th or 15th and all four riders with me have rainbow stripes on too. You just see how it’s rare to stay on top for as long as I have. If I have to have a little low and come back, it’s OK.
VN: To stay mentally strong, do you have a mantra or something?
CP: A lot of the work definitely has to happen before the race because you can’t be in there and have any doubt or second-guessing your desire. I just say clear mind, not thinking of anything negative, you try to think of things that are positive and exciting that keep you fighting forward.
VN: Is the injury part of why you came out for this race so late in the season?
CP: Yeah definitely, the injury, taking two and a half months off racing in the middle of summer, made me want to do it. Clif Team, we’re going to change our focus to a heavier emphasis on domestic stuff. I haven’t been to an Epic Ride since 2009. In the middle of the season being in Canada it doesn’t always work out to get here. This one was just to check it out, I’ve heard good things about the trails, and get excited to do more of these things next year.
VN: You expect you’re going to move away from World Cup racing?
CP: Eventually. [laughs] With world championships in Canada that is still big on my radar I want to be the top three points earners for Canada for Olympics. There’s potential to earn three start spots for 2020. So there’s a lot of things that are really motivating to stay in the highest level, at the World Cup level. It could be that I sit out a World Cup or two but I will be at the majority of them, and I hope to be a contender.
Huck wins, Woodruff third in Greek stage race
Fresh off her win at the Oz Trails Off-Road, Erin Huck jetted to Greece with Team USA to chase UCI points at the Attika stage race. And she came away with an overall win after attacking early on the final stage of the three-day race to scoop up the 11 seconds needed for victory. Her compatriot Chloe Woodruff was third behind Annie Terpstra.
The two Americans will remain in Greece for a second Attika stage race October 19-21.
New venue for Red Bull Rampage
The world’s gnarliest freeride competition returns to the Utah desert on October 26, but this year, Red Bull Rampage will be held at an entirely new venue. According to organizers, this will afford an additional 150 feet of vertical and will feature steeper, more technical terrain. I’m not entirely sure how it is possible to send mountain bikers down terrain that’s more extreme than the old venue. Tune in on RedBull.tv at 9 a.m. Pacific time Friday next week to see it for yourselves!
Welcome to the VeloNews cycling podcast, where we discuss the latest trends, news, and controversies in the world of cycling.
This episode features interviews with two controversial guests. First, we have Thomas Dekker, a retired pro who recently wrote a book that gives an in-depth look at the rampant doping in the early 2000s. We hear from him on why transparency is important and whether other ex-dopers should be involved in the sport.
Then, we talk to Dr. Rachel McKinnon who just became the first transgender rider to win a world championship. She won the masters 35-44 sprint event on the track over the weekend. McKinnon explains some of the issues and misconceptions about transgender athletes.
Off the top, we discuss the action at Il Lombardia and much more.
BEIHAI, China (VN) — Sepp Kuss is ending his first season in the WorldTour ranks on a high and looking ahead to a repeat performance in 2019.
This season, the Colorado native signed for WorldTour team LottoNL-Jumbo, won the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, and debuted in a grand tour, the Vuelta a España.
“I’ve had a lot of nice races late in the season, the second half of the season was really nice for me,” 24-year-old Kuss told VeloNews. “I’m still enjoying it, I’m motivated. I don’t feel like I burnt my matches.”
Kuss rode high in the Vuelta a España working for George Bennett and Steven Kruijswijk. Dutchman Kruijswijk led his home team to a fourth overall.
Helping Kruijswijk, Kuss led the bunch on many of the mountain stages when several stars were either dropped or struggling. From there, he rode a tough world championship and traveled to China where he is racing the Tour of Guangxi.
In Beihai, the first finish of the Tour of Guangxi, Kuss and LottoNL-Jumbo won with their sprinter Dylan Groenewegen.
“It’s super cool. One of my best memories from this year was from the Volta ao Algarve, I also did it with Dylan [Groenewegen] and it’s just cool when you are part of the winning effort. And it makes for a good vibe in the team,” Kuss added.
Later in the season, after a convincing win at Tour of Utah, he was called up to his debut grand tour at the Vuelta.
“The Vuelta was a concentrated learning experience. Other races are six days, but in three weeks you really learn a lot more. The race takes different forms, so you are always in some new scenario, which is good for me.”
Kuss did not race for himself, often finishing well behind on the stages and ending the race 65th overall, but as a climbing domestique, he saw some of the action at the front.
“It was cool in my first grand tour to be riding for someone who was going to finish high up in the GC,” he said. “Not only that but Stevie [Kruijswijk] is really experienced, to ride for him, someone who’s done so many grand tours, and he’s always at the front, that’s cool.”
Kuss admits he is “not a huge goals” guy. After the Tour of Guangxi ends this weekend, he and his teammates will meet with the staff to plan the 2019 season.
“I definitely like the grand tour style of racing. I still have a lot to learn in the week-long races too. I don’t know my schedule yet, but I hope to do another grand tour for sure and go off what I did this year. Just see what the races are like with one year of experiences under my belt,” he continued.
“The [Vuelta a España] definitely gave a lot of confidence, maybe the other races will feel shorter now. It’s definitely cool to have that under my belt. I didn’t even think a grand tour would be possible for me at the start of the year.”
Kuss will travel home to Colorado after the LottoNL-Jumbo meeting in the Netherlands. He will stay there while others meet for the December camp. At that point, he should know the roads he will take in his second year at the top level.
SHANGHAI (AFP) — German Pascal Ackermann took the second stage of the Tour de Guangxi in southern China on Wednesday.
“It was not easy today to get the timing right,” said Ackermann. “It was hectic because of the rain, but also because the last 2k were on a big road and totally straight which made it difficult.”
Ackerman, of the Bora-Hansgrohe team, won the sprint finish in 3:18:58, ahead of Fabio Jakobsen of Quick-Step Floors and stage 1 winner Dylan Groenewegen of Team LottoNL-Jumbo.
“Yesterday we messed it up a little, but today everything went perfect,” Ackermann added. “There are a lot of really strong sprinters here, so you also need a little bit of luck to get everything right. Today I had the position and also the legs. It was a great team effort and a deserved win.”
The Dutchman Groenewegen remains on top in the overall standings, four seconds ahead of both Ackermann and Jakobsen.
The 145km second stage ran along the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin between the cities of Beihai and Qinzhou. A five-man breakaway was off the front for most of the day until the rainy finishing circuit in Qinzhou.
Cyclists are expected to face their biggest challenge on Stage 5, a 212km route from Liuzhou to Guilin taking in some rugged roads and three climbs.
The six-stage race in Guangxi, a region bordering on Vietnam, is the final stop on this year’s UCI WorldTour.