I rolled up to the start line unprepared, in a snowy field, with a muddy cyclocross track ahead of me. I didn’t warm up due to my late arrival at the venue. I missed my call-up to the grid because I was peeing. Tire pressure? It was pure guesswork. I didn’t have a spare bike in the pit if things went wrong.
My seat-of-the-pants approach stood in stark contrast to how I used to approach cyclocross races. For more than 10 years, every autumn weekend, I would carefully pack my car before each race. I would warm up thoroughly. I always pre-rode the course.
This past Sunday, I tried a new approach: winging it. The Spencer Powlison of five years ago would have freaked out. Here’s the thing: I found that carelessness might be the first step toward being carefree.
My relationship with cyclocross has changed a lot since my first season in 2005. In those days, cyclocross race entries were cheap, beer hand-ups were plentiful, and the racing was grassroots — for better and for worse. There was wild variation when it came to course quality and organization.
One thing was consistent from week to week, though. Everyone was there simply because it was fun. The racing was seriously hard but not that serious.
After that first season, my approach evolved. Results became more important to me. Cyclocross’s popularity grew rapidly, and I became fixated on the fall season. I watched hours of European ‘cross racing on Internet streams. Maybe I thought I had to emulate Sven Nys. Or perhaps all of the hype around ‘cross nationals and UCI races ignited my competitive urge. No matter the root of this obsession with being “pro,” I ended up with a quiver of carbon fiber tubular wheels, elaborate training plans, and an encyclopedic knowledge of call-up procedures. I swapped carbon-rim brake pads on, and off, and back on, again and again, week after week.
After almost 10 years of the “pro” approach, I found myself not having as much fun anymore. And like many racers, I evolved and changed. I sought out a new experience.
I decided to only race singlespeed cyclocross, hoping to revive the simple grassroots spirit that first got me excited to race through mud and snow when most people are smart enough to stay indoors and watch football. It was a step in the right direction, but I was still treating these races like, well, races. In the back of my mind, I hadn’t fully escaped the serious mentality cultivated over the course of 100+ cyclocross races.
That was until Sunday, at Cross of the North in Fort Collins, when I did everything wrong but it ended up right.
It isn’t ideal to show up unprepared. It is pretty painful to start a ‘cross race cold, without any warm-up. Hopping in two races on the same day is maybe a little excessive, and doing an open race on a singlespeed is not the best way to win (unless you’re Travis Brown).
But once the starter’s whistle blew, none of this mattered. Sure, it took me a few corners to figure out how my tires were handling the slushy mud track. Without having previewed the course, I blew a few critical lines on greasy off-cambers, with comical results. However, it almost felt like the lack of a scripted pre-race ritual made the race itself the true highlight of the day.
Bike racing is downright simple. Every so often, I need to remind myself of that because my natural inclination is to overcomplicate things, to let my competitive urge take over.
It is okay to care about racing, to put in the time and effort to be your best. I’ve been there before, I’ll probably go there again, and there is joy to be had in that pursuit. But take it from me, the essence of ‘cross racing — any bike racing — has always been having fun. If it takes a muddy, painful misadventure to put everything in perspective, then I say screw the warm-up, forget the pit bike, and grab that beer feed.
Editors’ Note: Author Samuel Abt was a long-time sports journalist and columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He covered the Tour de France and other professional cycling events for more than 30 years. A resident of the Paris area, Abt retired several years ago.
A bewildering rumor made the rounds days before the presentation of the 2019 Tour de France: The race would schedule a stage to honor Frank Vandenbroucke, the golden wastrel of Belgian cycling.
That made little sense for several reasons. For one, the Tour organizers were already lavishing their attention on another Belgian rider, Eddy Merckx, who will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first Tour victory this year. For another, Vandenbroucke had been a classics specialist, not a star in the Tour, where he finished 50th in 1997 and did not finish in 2000. For a third, with his history of erratic behavior and doping suspicions, convictions, and confessions, Vandenbroucke made an unlikely Tour role model.
In the end. the rumor turned out to be just that, one more in a life full of rumors. Actual news about Vandenbroucke lately is limited to the fact that his daughter Cameron, 19, heretofore a runner, recently signed a contract with one of his many former teams, Lotto-Soudal.
Otherwise, Vandenbroucke’s name surfaced a few months ago when he became the subject of a new biography in his homeland nearly 10 years after his death. The Vandenbroucke family has called the book the first public biography of Frank. The book thrilled his mother.
“We wanted to show that his life couldn’t be summed up in scandals,” she said. “I want people to remember him as the swell person he was, not as a criminal.”
The book joins a handful of other accounts of the tumultuous life and long rap sheet of the rider once ranked third in the world. Among these works is an autobiography that he coyly titled: “I’m No God.”
Who said he was? For a while, nearly everybody in divided Belgium, French-speaking Wallonia in the south, Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, thought Vandenbroucke to be a cycling god. No matter where, including the somewhat neutral Brussels region, Vandenbroucke was known adoringly as VDB, the title of the new book.
Despite the Germanic sound of his name, Vandenbroucke was a pure Walloon, a native of Mouscron just across the border with France. He himself never seemed part of Belgium’s widespread linguistic chauvinism as exemplified by his uncle Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke, a serviceable rider in the 1980s and then the directeur sportif for the Lotto team from 1988 to 1999. Jean-Luc would guide his riders only in French while a deputy next to him in the team car instructed those speaking Flemish.
The uncle and VDB’s father, Jean-Jacques, long a mechanic with Jean-Luc’s teams, trained the young rider and signed him for Lotto in 1993 at the age of 19. By then he had won his country’s championship for new riders and then for juniors plus a bronze medal in the junior world championships.
VDB was a force from the start with Lotto, winning in 1994 a stage of the Tour of the Mediterranean and finishing on the podium in four lesser races. After he won the Cholet-Pays de Loire semi-classic in 1995 he decided that his career demanded more than Lotto, his uncle, and his father. “It was impossible to take orders from somebody in the family,” he said. “I couldn’t stand it.”
Going to court to void his contract, he signed with Mapei, the world’s top team. His ascent continued: victory in Paris-Brussels, the Tour of the Mediterranean, the Tour of Austria, the Grand Prix of Plouay, the Tour of Luxembourg, a clutch of podiums in other races and in 1998 victory in the weeklong Paris-Nice and Gent-Wevelgem.
He then left Mapei for Cofidis and in 1999 had his best season: victory in Het Volk and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, two stage victories and the points jersey in the Vuelta, second in the Tour of Flanders.
Ominously, despite his third-place world ranking, he became known to his Cofidis teammates and officials as “the headache.” Suspected but not convicted in a doping scandal in 1999, he was suspended by his team for several weeks.
The downward spiral continued as quickly as his ascent had. Every year he joined a new team — some big like Fassa Bortolo, Domo, Quick-Step and Lampre, others down the slope to Mr. Bookmaker, Unibet and, finally, both Mitsubishi and Cinelli-Down Under, known only to spelunkers. The problem was not simply lack of results, faulty conditioning, frequent injuries, or exorbitant salary demands. (“My financial requirements are not high,” he told the Gazet van Antwerpen.”It must have to do with my past.”)
Good guess, VDB. In 2002, a police raid on his home turned up EPO, clenbuterol, and morphine, some of which, he insisted, were for his dog. The Domo team dropped him and he was suspended for six months by the cycling federation in Flanders, but not the one in Wallonia. It was not true, but widely believed, that when the Tour of Wallonia passed through a village half-Flemish and half-Walloon, the pack rode on one side of the street — the Flemish side — and Vandenbroucke rode alone on the other side.
His pattern of self-destruction was formidable. During the 2000 Tour de France, while his team had dinner at its hotel, Vandenbroucke was seen at a chic restaurant with a gorgeous woman. She may or may not have been the wife with whom he had many highly publicized fights, including one in which he threatened them both with a shotgun. They divorced in 2007.
Amid his troubles and numerous comebacks under new colors, Vandenbroucke could be blithe, even charming. When I interviewed him at the Tour of Qatar in 2004, he talked mostly about a coming court hearing for doping and about the mysterious torching of his black Mercedes CL5SK (sales price about $150,000) as it was parked during the night behind his home.
“Who did it? Why? How?” he asked with a what-me-worry Alfred E. Neuman smile. “It was insured, no problem.”
The coming court hearing was no less troublesome. “Life is full of unhappiness,” he said.
Indeed his was. In 2006, he unsuccessfully attempted suicide. In 2008, the Belgian press identified him as a cocaine user. In 2009, he was dead. The end came in a resort hotel in Senegal, where VDB was vacationing while seeking a new team. A Senegalese woman who had spent the night with him was arrested and charged with stealing about $450 and two cellphones.
His death was ruled natural — a double pulmonary embolism as well as an existing heart problem — while the public prosecutor there said the body showed signs of drug and alcohol abuse.
“Sadly, this has only partly come as a surprise, for we knew he was not doing too well,” said Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke. “He was up and down, both in terms of his health and his morale.”
The up and down man: Rest in peace, Frank Vandenbroucke.
It’s the beginning of November, that time of the year when we cycling fans can let our imaginations run wild about what will happen in the next season of bike racing. Now that we have seen the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France routes and digested the 42 stages of racing on tap in 2019, we can start forming some opinions. How do these two grand tours compare? What sort of action do we expect from the GC hitters? Time for a roundtable!
Fred Dreier, @freddreier: Major caveat: I’m always more excited for the Giro d’Italia due to the timing and dynamics of the race. That said, with regards to the actual route, the Tour’s route is more enticing as a fan. The Giro route is again a beast of parcours that saves the big wallop for the third week, with a final individual TT to hang over everyone’s head. With the Tour route, by contrast, the absence of a final, decisive time trial is a positive step in my opinion. I am also curious to see how the three shorter mountain stages (stages 14, 19, and 20) shake up the dynamics of the race. The summit finishes at the Tourmalet and Val Thorens, after so few kilometers of pedaling, should enable some of the punchier climbers to have more strength in their legs.
Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: On the whole, I like this year’s Tour better because it promises must-watch stages throughout all three weeks. The Giro has a sleepy start when it comes to the GC battle, and there are also some dreadfully boring flat stages on the menu (stages 10 and 11, most definitely. I think the Giro’s highest highs will be more exciting than the Tour — the final week, especially — but overall the Tour route has more to offer fans.
Dane Cash, @danecash: I like the Giro route better, let’s get that out of the way first. But I’ll still be more excited to watch cycling’s main event in July. That probably won’t change unless the Giro starts drawing all the sport’s top GC contenders on peak form every year — or unless the ASO decides to build a Tour route of 21 consisting solely of 230-kilometer flat stages.
Which rider does the Giro favor and why? What about the Tour?
Fred: The Giro favors your traditional well-rounded grand tour champion who can time trial and survive long, punishing climbing efforts. In my opinion, it is perfect for Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin. The Tour, by contrast, favors a rider with an extremely strong team for the TTT, and a rider with explosive climbing ability. I think Geraint Thomas is actually better suited for the Tour de France than for the Giro. If Mitchelton-Scott can recruit a few powerful time trialists, then Simon Yates is another rider for the Tour.
Spencer: By now you know I’m a big Nibali fan, so take this with a grain of salt, but this Giro is perfect for him. The time trials have enough climbing to keep a guy like Dumoulin honest. There are plenty of tricky stages where he could scoop up seconds (hello Il Lombardia-inspired stage 15), and plus his experience in grand tours will help him save matches for that crucial final week, like he did when he won in 2016. The Tour favors Chris Froome. Always has, always will. Well, until he gets old and retires.
Dane: There are three time trials on the menu, but the total TT distance is still pretty short compared to past Giri. It’s the kind of route that favors a do-it-all talent. Obviously, Chris Froome fits the bill but I’m not expecting him to go. Tom Dumoulin, Primoz Roglic, Geraint Thomas, and of course Vincenzo Nibali could thrive as well. As for the Tour, Sky will certainly be favored, but it does look like a good race for climbers like Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet, if they can just manage to not lose huge chunks of time in the TTT.
Describe your dream scenario for a GC race at either the Tour or Giro.
Fred: At the Giro, I’d love to see a knock-down, drag-out fight on the long climbs and time trials between Geraint Thomas and Tom Dumoulin. For the Tour, I want to see Chris Froome have to battle a cadre of explosive climbers, namely Simon Yates, Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet, and Miguel Ángel López.
Spencer: Team Sky wins the stage 2 TTT at the Tour and then Froome keeps yellow for the remaining 19 stages. Ha! Just kidding folks. I’d love to see Sky cut Egan Bernal loose to ride the Giro as a leader this year. He loses some ground on the time trials, but in the final week he has a knock-down, drag-out fight with Nibali and Adam Yates. Then, it all comes down to that stage 21 time trial, a bunch of climber/GC guys TTing their legs off for all the marbles.
Dane: Dream Tour de France: Froome and Thomas both shine in the early goings but then begin to square off against each other for maximum dramatic effect. That allows Nairo Quintana and Tom Dumoulin to surge into the conversation later in the race. The Condor and the Butterfly (I didn’t make up their nicknames!) duke it out with the Sky duo in the final mountain stages for the yellow jersey.
If Peter Sagan were to race both the Giro and the Tour, how many stages would he win between the two?
Fred: This number will be heavily influenced by whether or not Fernando Gaviria suffers from the UAE-Team Emirates first-year curse (lookin’ at you, Fabio Aru). If the Wolfpack-less Gaviria takes a step back, then I’d say Sagan could win a combined seven stages. But wait, why would Peter Sagan race the Giro and not bask in sunshine at the Amgen Tour of California?
Spencer: As usual, the Giro will have a sub-par field of sprinters and Sagan will scoop up five stages there, thanks in part to the lumpy, tricky stages in the first week. Then he’ll get two stages at the Tour, maybe three. So seven to eight total. Not bad!
Dane: I’ll say six total: three in the Giro and three in the Tour. The first week at the Giro is full of opportunities for the three-time world champ, but I do wonder if he’d stay in the race for the whole Giro. The Tour also has a number of early opportunities, right up until the first rest day.
It’s a slightly more balanced route than what the Tour de France organizers unveiled last week in that there are three individual time trials, but this is still going to be a Giro that the climbers will love. The peloton will spend plenty of time high up in the Alps next May on terrain that will be very familiar to longtime Giro fans.
Here are five of the stages that have us especially excited for next year’s race.
Okay, it may be a bit anti-climactic to kick off this list with a time trial, but the Giro’s ninth stage will be a critical test. Although there are two other time trials in the race, neither one is especially long. The 34.7-kilometer trek through wine country from Riccione into the micro-state of San Marino in stage 9 should have a major impact on the race. It will give the TT specialists a chance to jump out to an advantage, and set the pecking order heading into the second week.
That said, the final third of this TT features some bona fide climbing. From the second intermediate time check at 22.2 kilometers, the road rises nearly 350 meters over 5.7 kilometers of road. There’s another uphill stretch that heads into the finish line. Pacing will be crucial — go out too hard and you might start to drag on those late gradients.
If that’s not enough to entice roadside fans, there’s the extra perk that visiting spectators can cross another (tiny) country off the travel bucket list.
The journey from Saint-Vincent to Courmayeur sure packs a lot of punch into just 131 total kilometers. The peloton will get no respite coming off a tough stage 13, with a 14th stage that features four big climbs and a short uphill finish for a total of 4,000 meters of elevation gain. The stage rolls through the Aosta Valley and heads high into the Alps.
The penultimate categorized ascent up the Colle San Carlo runs 10.5 kilometers at a 9.8 percent gradient — steep enough to blow whatever is left of the peloton to pieces. It tops out with around 26 kilometers to go, and then comes a long descent to the final push to the finish at the Skyway Monte Bianco. At least the exhausted riders will get the enjoy the Mont Blanc scenery as they suffer toward the line.
The Giro is fully embracing the Lombardy region in 2019, with a few high-mountain stages and then this celebration of Il Lombardia, one of the most exciting one-day races on the calendar.
The familiar Madonna del Ghisallo, Colma di Sormano, Civiglio, and San Ferma Della Battaglia climbs all feature on the back end of stage 15. They’re all relatively short efforts compared to some of the more intense high-mountain climbs in the race, so this won’t be a defining GC stage of the race, but it should be an exciting showdown nonetheless. A keen descender could sneak away in the finale, just like Vincenzo Nibali has done in the season’s final monument.
Considering how much we love the classics, it’s great to see the Giro visiting Il Lombardia territory and the Tour visiting De Ronde terrain in the same year.
Anyone hoping to ease back into the race coming off of the second and final rest day will get a rude awakening in the Giro’s stage 16. The early Passo della Presolana and Croce di Salven climbs can’t be underestimated. After the descent off the latter, however, things become especially intimidating. From around kilometer 60, the road runs mostly uphill for the next 71 kilometers, with the last stretch of that coming in the form of one of the Giro’s most iconic ascents: the Passo Gavia.
The climb that American Andy Hampsten conquered on his way to a grand tour victory needs no introduction. What’s more, the peloton will have already been climbing for more than an hour when it arrives — and riders will have more climbing to do after they crest the Gavia too.
From the top of the Gavia, the pack will zoom back down to the foot of the Passo Mortiriolo. With a 10.1 percent gradient across 12.8 kilometers, it should be a major battleground in the fight for pink. A fast descent from the summit until an uphill run to the Ponte di Legno finish should keep things interesting.
The four big climbs on tap for the final mountain stage of the race may not have the name recognition of some of the more legendary Giro ascents, but they should make for a great day of racing just the same. The second climb of stage 20, the Passo Manghen, runs 18.9 kilometers at 7.6 percent, making it slightly longer than the Gavia and almost as steep.
If anyone has the grinta to go long in stage 20, this is a great place to give it a shot.
The Passo Rolle will be another opportunity to attack before the shorter but challenging Croce d’Aune finishing climb. As the last big mountain ascent of the race, it will give the contenders one last chance to go head to head before the final individual time trial closes things out the following day.
Editors’ Note: Author Samuel Abt was a long-time sports journalist and columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He covered the Tour de France and other professional cycling events for more than 30 years. A resident of the Paris area, Abt retired several years ago.
The guy up on the stage is the impresario Carl Denham, just back from Skull Island. Behind him, as the photographers go wild with their flashbulbs, is a gorilla. In fact, he’s a giant gorilla. Luckily for everybody, he’s in shackles.
“Don’t be alarmed, ladies and gentlemen,” Denham says, “those chains are made of chrome steel. Stay in your seats. Nothing can break them.”
This familiar scene from “King Kong” flashed through my mind earlier this week when Tour de France owner ASO revealed the route for the 2019 edition. Playing the role of Carl Denham was Christian Prudhomme, the Tour de France majordomo, as he showcased the route at a gala in Paris.
And that gorilla wasn’t King Kong, it was Team Sky.
You’ve no doubt seen the movie in one of its three major iterations, (the 1933 original with Fay Wray is by far the best), so you know what happens once Kong, unhinged by the hoopla, breaks loose and goes, um, ape. Will a similar fate befall the Tour de France and its attempts to shackle Team Sky?
In an unspoken way, that script dominated Prudhomme’s presentation. Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, and now Geraint Thomas — as British riders for Sky — keep winning the race. The race’s popularity at home wanes. The organizers hope to tame the beast. What better way than with a course designed to produce, oh happy day, the first French winner since 1985.
The candidates are Julian Alaphilippe, Romain Bardet, and Thibaut Pinot and they exhibit the same strengths and weaknesses: strong climbers all, they often fizzle in time trials, although Pinot has made huge progress there.
Not by chance, there will be seven climbing stages in 2019, five of them with summit finishes. The sole individual time trial will cover a mere 27 kilometers. And Bardet gets a cherry atop his cupcake: The stage on Bastille Day, the French national holiday, finishes in his hometown of Brioude.
Far more rounded than the local heroes are the two Brits (les rosbifs, as they are known to the French) who lead Sky, Thomas and Froome, who finished first and third this year.
Thomas flew up the mountains and is the British time trial champion. Froome has won the Tour four times. Sort of Kong-like, no?
With its $35 million budget, Sky is also hatching the next generation of King Kongs. That rider starting to thump his chest is Egan Bernal, all of 22 in January and the winner at home in Colombia of the mountainous Oro y Paz and the national time trial championship.
Add in a stage victory and second overall at the Tour de Romandie and the overall victory and two stages at the Amgen Tour of California. Plus, he had a strong performance in the mountains of the Tour, where he finished 15th overall. Bernal signed a five-year contract with Sky this fall.
An even-younger prodigy with the team is Ivan Sosa, 21 at the end of October, another strong Colombian climber, who will join next year if his contract can be worked out. His potential is considered so vast that, in a rare bidding contest, Sky had to top Trek for his services.
In the here and now, if the new Tour route favors the French, so do the favorites’ ages. Thomas will be 33 next year and Froome 34, a worrisome factor if the race is fiercely hot or rainy. Alaphilippe will be 27, Bardet 28, and Pinot 29.
Alaphilippe might be favored among them after his performance this year: victory at the Flèche Wallonne and Clasica San Sebastian, overall titles at the Tour of Britain and Tour of Slovakia, two mountain stages at the Tour and the polka dot climber’s jersey.
Still, he finished a lackluster 33rd in the Tour and eighth in the world championship road race in which he was the big favorite. While he blamed leg cramps in the worlds, some wondered how well he handles the pressure of being “The Man.”
Bardet had a good season, too, with second in the worlds, third at the Critérium du Dauphiné behind Thomas’s victory, sixth overall at the Tour, second at Strade Bianche and third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Pinot did not race in the Tour because of illness but finished sixth overall at the Vuelta a España, where he took two stages, and won Milano-Turino and then the Il Lombardia. Earlier in the year, he finished first in the Tour of the Alps and had four podium finishes on stages at the Giro d’Italia.
Sky is not the trio’s only obstacle. Tom Dumoulin, 28, was second this year. He should be strong again in the climbs and time trial. Richie Porte, 34, may finally overcome his injury-illness-misguided team strategy hex. To cover all bases, throw in a Central European contender or two, the stray Italian or Spaniard or Australian or a hitherto unknown third Yates brother. It doesn’t look easy for the French.
This is not the first time the Tour organizers have stacked the deck for one of their own in a blatant attempt to cage a monster rider. Tour organizers did it two decades ago to support Richard Virenque, a climber who never made it into the final yellow jersey because of Bjarne Riis, Marco Pantani, and an earlier King Kong — well, maybe Godzilla — Miguel Indurain, who won the Tour five times.
Indurain finally succumbed to age and the smart tactics of his rivals. King Kong was done in by incessant attacks by airplanes and machine guns.
In any case, according to Carl Denham, “No, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”
Who is beauty in this scenario? With the wispy mustache he sometimes sports, Alaphilippe doesn’t look fetching enough.
Now that the ASO has unveiled the route of the 2019 Tour de France, we can stop dreaming about how next year’s race might look and start getting excited about the real deal. There are plenty of things to look forward to in what the ASO is billing as “the highest Tour in history.” With all the summit finishes and iconic terrain on the docket, we should get an exciting race with memorable moments.
That said, we’ve got a few gripes too.
Here’s what we love (and hate) about the route of next summer’s Tour de France.
Love: Classics callback
The 2019 edition of the Tour celebrates the 50th anniversary of Eddy Merckx’s first Tour de France win with a Grand Départ in Belgium and a visit to the classics heartland. The Tour of Flanders is one of the sport’s best events, and stage 1 will take on some of the same terrain that makes that race great. The Muur van Geraardsbergen, beloved by so many fans of cycling, will get some deserved international spotlight.
While the opening stage might end up as one for the sprinters, at least the road to the finish will be paved with a few cobblestones and the possibility of splits. Hopefully, the specialists will make the most of the opportunity to put their skills to good use a few months after the spring one-days have wrapped up. However it plays out, we’ll get a welcome reminder of classics season and the spectacle of grand tour guys outside of the element for at least a few hours.
Love: Early intrigue
Tours backloaded with all the good stuff risk turning fans off with a boring opening chapter — fortunately, we should get some GC action in the first stretch of stages in 2019. Stages 3 and 5 throw a few punchy climbs at the peloton, and La Planche des Belles Filles (more on that in a moment) awaits at the end of stage 6. A high-mountain finish in week one guarantees early action.
The hilly eighth and ninth stages are technically in the second week of the race, but they come before the first rest day so we’ll include them as well.
All in all, the Tour should offer some compelling racing even in the early goings, and that’s important to keep people tuned in before the racing really heats up in the Pyrenees and the Alps.
Love: A dirty summit finish
Stage 6 checks several of the boxes we laid out in our pre-announcement wishlist. Beyond being a week one GC day (see above) is the fact that it’s a summit finish. That may not sound like much, but last year’s Tour only featured three. A handful of downhill finishes can be exciting, but it’s the mountaintop finales that really get fans excited. The upcoming Tour is set to feature five of them.
What’s more, the organizers have spiced up the finale of the always-exciting climb of La Planche des Belles Filles.
After passing the point where the climb has finished in years past, the peloton will continue onto a steep gravel road, and then take on a paved 20-percent gradient near the summit. Sounds like chaos!
Chapeau to the ASO for giving it a try.
Hate: Where’s the balance?
As you go through the Tour route stage-by-stage, you start to wonder: What happened to time trials?
There are two on the menu for 2019, but one is a team time trial, this author’s least favorite kind of grand tour stage, guaranteed to crush the dreams of the Pro Continental riders while offering little in the spectacle department. The only other “chrono” day is stage 13, which runs 27 kilometers in full. Meanwhile, the Tour will feature around 30 categorized climbs. As Christian Prudhomme said at the route presentation, it will be “impossible to win this Tour unless you are a great climber.”
Don’t get us wrong, climbing stages are usually the best part of the Tour de France. But going all-in for the climbers is not the right move. Organizers seem to think that cutting the time trial mileage will lead to a better race. On the contrary, a route for the pure climbers risks seeing one rider dominate wire to wire, without the TT to bring a whole different set of riders into the equation.
That’s pretty much what happened in 2015, which featured only one short individual time trial, and in 2016, which featured one flat time trial and one uphill TT. If the organizers think that they can shake Sky’s confidence by getting away from the TTs, they must have missed Chris Froome’s five career mountain stage wins in their race, or Geraint Thomas’s Alpe d’Huez win last year.
Love: A Tourmalet test
Stage 14 of next year’s Tour will visit the iconic Tourmalet, and it should be a good one. For starters, it’s only 117 kilometers from start to finish, with an intriguing visit to the Col du Soulor around the halfway mark of the stage.
Coming just after the lone ITT in the race, short, hard mountain stages often have wacky effects on the peloton. Go too deep in the time trial and you risk an epic meltdown on the hectic climbing day that follows, a la Simon Yates at the Giro d’Italia this past May. This particular stage closes out with a 19-kilometer ascent at 7.4 percent, with an especially tough finale.
In short: Expect fireworks on the Col du Tourmalet …
Hate: Overlong sprint stages
We griped about it in our pre-announcement wishlist, but that didn’t stop the ASO from laying out a few sprint stages that will drag on far too long next summer.
Just as in this year’s Tour de France, which gave us a 231-kilometer snooze-fest for the sprinters, stage 7 could be the worst offender again next summer at 230 kilometers. For a day expected to go to the sprinters, that is just way too much. Even if a breakaway somehow stays away, it’s hard to imagine much action outside of the closing kilometers. Stage 10 at 218 kilometers might be a tough one to stay awake for as well.
Would 130-kilometer days have been so bad here? What do we get out of those extra hundred kilometers?
Love: Altitude action
The Tour will visit Europe’s highest paved mountain pass in stage 19 on the Col de l’Iseran, which rises to around 2,770 meters (9,088 feet). Following a descent, that stage finishes at Tignes at over 2,000 meters. It should be a firecracker of a day at just 123 kilometers. The next day, the Tour will arrive at its final mountaintop finish at Val Thorens, which sits at an altitude of 2,365 meters. Another short stage at 131 kilometers, it will be a fitting GC finale for the Tour de France before the sprinters’ showdown in Paris.
While the heavy skew in favor of the climbers at the upcoming Tour does have its drawbacks, it’s hard not to get excited about the higher-altitude action in the third week. Not everyone can handle racing up where the air gets thin. Colombian climbers like Nairo Quintana will be eyeing this Tour as a prime opportunity to snatch that first Tour de France win.
The ASO will announce the route of the 2019 Tour de France route this Thursday, so we figured we would put in a few last-minute requests before things are finalized. Did organizers ask for our input? No, but that’s not going to stop us from giving it anyway.
Designing the perfect grand tour route is an immense challenge. First, there’s no one perfect collection of 21 stages that will please everybody. On top of that are the countless logistical problems that come with every kind of stage you might draw up.
Still, there are some goals that the Tour could strive for. Some of them might even cut down on the logistical nightmares. Others will pay dividends in fan interest.
Here are seven things we’d love to see from the 2019 Tour de France.
1. Spread out the good stuff
It’s technically a three-week race, but the Tour de France often comes down to one or two key days. Although a thrilling finale is always entertaining, that shouldn’t come at the expense of an exciting first week.
Even one or two days for the GC riders — whether those are tough mountain finishes, long TTs, or even just tricky stages on lumpy terrain along the coast — can make for a much more enjoyable start to the Tour.
You don’t have to visit the Alps or the Pyrenees for excitement. Northern and central France have plenty of smaller climbs, and a Mûr-de-Bretagne-style finish can go a long way toward spicing up the first few days of the Tour.
2. Up the chaos factor
Tour organizers have done an admirable job of mixing up the parcours of the last few Tours to liven up the race, with varying degrees of success. Cobblestones and even gravel are a great way to generate the kind of chaos that fans enjoy.
Last year’s stage 9 was a thriller, but the race doesn’t even need to visit the brutal Roubaix pavé to turn the chaos up a notch. The opening stage of the coming Tour is rumored to visit some of the classic climbs of the Tour of Flanders, which we wholly endorse. De Ronde is this author’s favorite race, and iconic climbs like the Muur van Geraardsbergen add plenty of suspense without quite as much risk of buzz-killing crashes like the ones you often see at Roubaix. The more hellingen, the better!
3. Finish on top of the mountains instead of at the bottom
Recent Tours have seen numerous stages finishing at the bottom of a tough climb rather than at the top — take stage 19 that went over the Aubisique before finishing in the valley below at Laruns. Race organizers have reasons for planning things that way, and we get it — but the Tour still needs a few of those mystical mountaintop finishes every year.
Setting up the finish line and all it entails on an Alpine summit is a logistical nightmare. Ski stations are the go-to locations for mountain stage finishes, because where else would you find that kind of infrastructure high above the clouds? It’s easier to go up and over a climb and finish a race in the quaint town at the bottom than it is to put the line a thousand meters up on the mountainside. Plus, throwing in a few downhill finishes is a great way to bring descending into play as a necessary skill to win the race.
Just the same, the mountaintop finishes are the stages that get everyone — fans and riders alike — talking. Splits are practically guaranteed on the slopes of a climb like the Alpe d’Huez, and everyone tunes in to see the action. They are not easy and they are not cheap, but high-mountain finishes are critical components for a memorable grand tour, and well worth the expense. Rumor has it we’ll get at least one on La Planche des Belles Filles next summer. Keep ’em coming!
4. Shorten the flat stages — or just add wind!
Long days on the bike have their place at the Tour de France, but that place is not on pancake-flat sprint stages.
The Tour should work hard to avoid a repeat of stage 7 of the 2018 Tour. Even Peter Sagan called it “boring” — 230 kilometers from the start in Fougères to the finish Chartres gave commentators ample time to detail the history of the Chartres cathedral, but nothing was going to change the fact that it was a day for the sprinters. The final five minutes were all you really needed to watch. Stage winner Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) may not have had any complaints, but the rest of us did. Why couldn’t that stage have been 120 kilometers?
If the ASO must give us long, flat days, they should be accompanied by the threat of crosswinds. Think stage 13 of the 2013 Tour de France; Alberto Contador, Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan, and others left race leader Chris Froome behind in a particularly windy stretch that day, and rode into Saint-Amand-Montrond just over a minute ahead of the pack. That’s the kind of flat stage fans can sink their teeth into!
5. Axe the team time trial
Okay, it’s already more or less known that the second stage of the 2019 Tour will be a team time trial in Brussels, but is it too late to request a change of heart from the ASO?
The real answer is most certainly yes, it’s too late — but that won’t stop me from getting in a quick dig at the worst kind of competition road racing has to offer.
Do you ever find yourself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if Sky had more chances to crush teams like EF and Groupama-FDJ?”
Me neither. Dear ASO, if you’re reading this, there’s still time to pull a fast one and axe the team time trial! Instead, why not replace it with an individual TT? Or, at the very least, throw teams a curveball and design a TTT featuring the Oude Kwaremont in Flanders, or La Redoute in Wallonia! Anything but the snooze-fest of a flat TTT bound to crush the dreams of all of the lower-budget teams in the race.
6. Throw in more circuit races
Stages that take on a single circuit multiple times are flush with benefits.
For one, the fans win big. Instead of packing your friends into the RV at dawn and heading up the mountain for a coveted spot at the roadside only to see the pack fly by for 15 seconds, you get to enjoy the passing of the peloton numerous times in a circuit race. Considering the waves of casual fans that show up for a race like the Tour, that goes a long way to generating interest in the sport.
Circuit stages also provide both riders and viewers the opportunity to learn the roads and prepare for the main challenges of the course. It’s always interesting watching a race develop as the contenders feel out a route.
And, of course, circuit races mean that the exhausted journalists covering the race gets at least one afternoon off from a long drive from race start to finish. Spare a thought for the press corps!
7. Balance, above all
A grand tour with too many days for the pure climbers, or too much time trial mileage, is usually doomed to see one rider snatch an early lead and never look back. Fortunately, in this day and age of intense specialization within the peloton, a route that features a healthy mix of challenges is a great way to keep things interesting throughout the three weeks of racing. Balance is the key to an exciting Tour de France.
What might that look like? How about a tough mountaintop finish in week one quickly followed by a flat but technical time trial? Throw in some tricky terrain (Gravel? Cobblestones?) and a few punchier climbs and you’re practically guaranteed to have a Tour with multiple lead changes before the always-difficult final week.
Grand tour organizers sometimes fall into the trap of planning routes that go overboard on the grueling climbs, but that doesn’t always lead to great GC battles. Balance is better.
This past weekend Dr. Rachel McKinnon won the masters world championship in the match sprint in the women’s 35-44-year-old age category. The victory carried historical significance: Dr. McKinnon is a transgender woman, and her victory is the first world title by a trans athlete in cycling.
After her win, Dr. McKinnon tweeted out a photo of her victory and tagged multiple cycling sites, including VeloNews.com. A few hours later, news of her victory was picked up by Breitbart.com, with the opening sentence “A biological male claiming to be a transgender woman, won the 2018 UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championships in Los Angeles over the weekend.”
What happened next? Our Twitter feed became a firehose of offensive comments aimed at Dr. McKinnon from the dark and toxic dregs of the internet.
Buried within the muck, however, were more than a few serious questions asked by female athletes about fair play and ethics. Was Dr. McKinnon’s participation fair to the other women in the race? Does Dr. McKinnon’s birth gender give her an unfair advantage?
This debate is hardly new. A decade ago I first wrote about transgender athletes for VeloNews, and I reported on the topic again in 2011 for The New York Times and in 2015 for The Wall Street Journal. In each instance, I saw a familiar scenario play out. Those few transgender athletes participating in sports were met by the torch- and pitchfork-toting masses. Those athletes who raised serious concerns over fair play and equality were either lumped in with the bozos or completely drowned out by the chorus of angry tweets and offensive chants. In all cases, intelligent and nuanced conversation was overshadowed by hate.
My column today, alas, does not solve the debate swirling around Dr. McKinnon and her world championship. Instead, my goal is to present a civil and nuanced conversation around transgender athletes in sports. If you want to understand why this topic is so complicated and emotionally charged, please read on. If you want to yell and scream, go back to Twitter.
The current rules and research
First, let’s get the basics out of the way. Transgender people exist in society. They always have, and they always will. Within our society, people of all races, genders, and religions have the right to participate. The International Olympic Committee follows this philosophy too. The IOC’s stated “Fundamental Principals of Olympism” is an ode to inclusivity:
“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
But how should international sport, and its spirit of inclusivity, create rules that govern a society that is inherently unfair and unequal?
There is no universal rulebook governing transgender participation in sports; instead, various governing bodies have crafted rules for these athletes. Perhaps it’s no surprise that many of these rules focus on the participation of transgender females (individuals who were born male and then transitioned to female), because male athletes, on average, have physical advantages in terms of strength and stamina over female athletes.
The various rules often focus on testosterone and whether an athlete must suppress or boost the male hormone in order to compete.
There is no testosterone standard across all sports. Under the NCAA’s rules, a trans female (male to female) can compete in women’s sports after completing one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment, while a trans male (female to male) can no longer compete in female sports after starting testosterone replacement therapy.
The IOC has its own rules, which were revised in 2015 (the previous rules required transgender athletes to undergo irreversible genital surgery). Under the IOC rules, transgender males are allowed to compete in the male category without restrictions. Transgender females face more restrictions. They must show that their testosterone has been below 10 nanomoles (one billionth of a mole) per liter of blood for 12 months prior to their first competition. They must then maintain at or below this level through the period of eligibility. They are subject to testing.
Do these rules make everyone happy? Of course not. There are those who believe the restrictions are not strong enough, and others who believe them to be too restrictive. And both ends reference science to back up their respective arguments.
In her recent interview on VeloNews.com, Dr. McKinnon cites a recent study performed on elite track runners that seems to show no relationship between an athlete’s endogenous testosterone levels and performance. According to this study, 1/6 of elite male track runners had lower endogenous testosterone than the average range for a female. She also cites a study done by Dr. Joanna Harper that shows how suppressing testosterone in trans women limits performance. When combined, these studies uphold the belief that men’s and women’s physical performances are closer than we may think, and that endogenous testosterone suppression can create a major decrease in male athletic performance.
There are other researchers, however, who cite evidence to counter this way of thinking. And there is also the basic eyeball test; the fastest female marathon runners are slower than top males, female Olympic weightlifters can lift less weight than the top males. For many people, the eyeball test is enough evidence to convince them that transgender females have an unfair advantage.
How do the governing bodies handle this conundrum? In 2015 I interviewed Dr. Eric Vilain, a professor of human genetics at UCLA. Vilain helped write the NCAA’s rule for transgender participation. Under those rules, transgender women must undergo one year of testosterone suppression therapy before being allowed to compete. Vilain referenced studies that showed that a year of testosterone suppression significantly dropped the muscle mass in adult males.
Vilain told me that the NCAA’s rules were also aimed at inclusivity and that the governing body aims to give everyone the chance to compete. Creating rules around transgender participation, he admitted, was extremely challenging. He said that the entire concept of anatomical equality for transgender athletes was simply not feasible, and thus, it was not a stated goal of the NCAA’s rules.
“It is not about making everybody biologically equal, and I think that is a common misconception when we start talking about transgender athletes,” he said. “People want transgender [females] to be physiologically identical to [born] females, and if they’re not, it’s unfair. That is not possible.”
Dr. Vilain referenced the structure of the pelvis and the mass of certain muscle groups as anatomical differences between the male and female body that will always be somewhat different. But achieving total equality is not the point, Dr. Vilain said. The purpose of the NCAA’s rules is to, in a sense, shift the transgender female athlete’s muscle mass and physiology away from that of the average male. The goal is to create a pathway to include the transgender athlete, not create total equality.
“Can you turn a man’s body into a woman’s body? The short answer is ‘no,” Vilain said. “I think we need to move past that idea completely.”
Pushback from female racers
But what if the rulebooks are wrong? Track racer Sarah Fader believes the IOC’s rules create an unfair situation for cis women (cisgender refers to individuals whose gender identity matches their birth gender).
Known by some cycling fans for her maiden name, Caravella, Fader raced in the U.S. professional road scene from 2006-2015. Fader was set to race against Dr. McKinnon in the masters finals in Los Angeles. She was the defending masters world champion in the event, and she set the fastest time in the qualifying heats. Her time in the 200-meter qualifier set a new masters world record.
Fader, however, told me that she felt that racing against Dr. McKinnon was simply not fair. Dr. McKinnon stands six feet tall and weighs 200 pounds. Fader, by contrast, is 5-foot-5 and weighs 135 pounds. So minutes before the finals were set to start, she pulled out of the competition entirely.
“I thought that doing it this way was my own form of protest,” Fader said. “I knew that I personally did not agree with the situation. I don’t want to compete in a sport where the rules are unfair.”
In my conversation with Fader, she spoke about Dr. McKinnon with a calm tone of respect. She did not use mean or insulting language, or question Dr. McKinnon’s transgenderism, as critics often do online. Fader was cognizant that her position placed Dr. Fader in a challenging position. She believes the current rules simply place athletes like her at an unfair disadvantage.
Prior to the race, Fader said she read about Dr. McKinnon online, and also read the rules governing transgender participation in sports. Some of the articles Fader read — columns that questioned the science behind the IOC rulings — made her question the current rulebook on transgender participation. Fader said she does not blame Dr. McKinnon for competing in the event; rather, she disagrees with the rules allowing her to race against cis women.
“I’m not blaming Rachel for competing. A lot of people are calling her a cheater, and she’s not a cheater because the current rules allow her to do it legally,” Fader said. “I just don’t believe the current rules.”
Fader says her opinion was upheld by what she saw in the qualifying rounds. In Fader’s eyes, Dr. McKinnon dominated the other riders at the competition. Her power on the bicycle was simply too great for tactics and strategy to overcome, Fader said. And when Fader learned that Dr. McKinnon had switched from road cycling to track racing less than two years ago, she also questioned her inclusion. Fader is a cycling coach, and she believes Dr. McKinnon’s rapid rise from track newbie to world champion is a sign of an unfair advantage.
“It’s taken some women five to eight years to get that fast and [Dr. McKinnon] made these leaps and bounds in a few years,” Fader said. “For her being such a beginner and being able to hit these times that took us years to hit how do you even measure that progression?”
Other female competitors shared her opinion, Fader said, however, they were scared to speak out publicly against Dr. McKinnon. These riders feared being labeled discriminatory and insensitive, and thus kept their opinions to themselves. Indeed, one other rider from the race reached out to me to share a similar opinion to Fader’s. This rider wished to remain anonymous.
“There’s a lot of sensitivity here. I’ve spoken with women who are afraid to give their opinion because they think they will be deemed to be discriminating against transgender people, or that people will think they hate [transgender people],” Fader said. “I don’t think it’s about discrimination, I think it’s about looking logically at the rules.”
Dr. McKinnon’s race results
Earlier this week Dr. McKinnon did a long interview for our website, which I recommend reading. She discussed her background with cycling, talked about her story of transition, and explained some of the science and ethics that govern transgender participation in sports. The short version is that Dr. McKinnon transitioned in her late 20s. She had been an elite badminton player and took up recreational cycling as a hobby. She raced in road events and criteriums and progressed from newcomer to Category 1 racer in three years. About 15 months ago, she switched to track cycling.
Per the UCI rulebook, Dr. McKinnon is well within her rights to compete. She has submitted the results of tests from her endocrinologist that prove she is well below the allowable testosterone limit. “My body produces next to no testosterone, and my levels are below the bottom of the average female range, to the point where they’re essentially undetectable,” she said.
Dr. McKinnon disagrees with Fader’s assessment that she dominated the competition in Los Angeles. Fader beat her in both of the qualifying time trials, she said. Dr. McKinnon’s victory in the quarter-final was against a rider whose qualifying time was more than two seconds slower.
“My semi-final rides were difficult and I certainly didn’t ‘dominate,’ Dr. McKinnon said. “[Competitor] Linsey Hamilton rode hard, and I think that it’s a little insulting to suggest that I ‘dominated’ her when I had to give it my all to beat her.”
In the finals, Dr. McKinnon beat Dutch rider Carolien van Herrikhuyzen, who was also undefeated in the competition at that point. After Dr. McKinnon defeated van Herrikhuyzen, the Dutch rider reached out and held Dr. McKinnon’s hand as the two circled the velodrome.
Dr. McKinnon points to other results in track competitions that put her physical ability in a wider context. She raced in the international elite field in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania earlier this summer. In the spring qualifier, Dr. McKinnon finished sixth place, nearly half a second behind winner Caitlin Ward, the runner-up at Australia’s elite sprint national championships. In September, she competed in Canada’s elite national championships, where she finished in 11th place in the 500-meter timed sprint. In Dr. McKinnon’s eyes, she is a great track racer, but nowhere near the best.
“People seem to think that there’s no issue of ‘unfair advantage’ when I lose, but it only seems to be an issue when I win,” Dr. McKinnon said. “I don’t think that’s fair or reasonable.”
She points to her power numbers as further proof that her performances are not an aberration. Her best peak power output was 1,741 watts, which she held for one second during training. Normally, her peak power is in the range of 1,550 watts. By contrast, Fader said her average peak power is 1,350 watts, and she weighs 135 pounds. In terms of pure watts-per-kilogram power, Fader actually has a higher number (21.99 compared to 17.05). I reached out to two elite cycling coaches, and both said that Dr. McKinnon’s power output is consistent with what would be expected from an elite track sprinter of her size. The extra wattage, one coach said, is needed to overcome the greater forces of wind and gravity acting against Dr. McKinnon’s larger body.
“There’s nothing too exceptional about my [power to weight],” Dr. McKinnon said. “There are many world-class track sprinters with higher values.”
The ethics of transgender participation
Before we continue, I want to address the question many readers have asked: Why don’t transgender athletes compete in their own category?
Creating a separate category for transgender athletes effectively bans them from actual competition. In most sports, there are too few transgender athletes to comprise an entirely new division. In 2007 I wrote about Canadian downhill mountain biker Michelle Dumaresq, the sole transgender woman in the pro mountain bike scene at the time. She explained the argument against transgender category succinctly.
What’s the point of racing against yourself? No matter if Dumaresq sped down the track in world-record time, or she crashed and walked to the bottom, she would earn first place and every race, week after week. At some point, those medals would carry no significance, and thus, the victories would not matter.
Therein lies the ethical conundrum that governs transgender participation. To deny the participation of Dr. McKinnon is, in essence, a denial of their basic human rights to competition, as outlined under the IOC’s charter. But, in the opinion of Fader and other riders, Dr. McKinnon’s participation sacrifices their right to fair competition.
In my 2015 story for the Journal I spoke on background with cisgender female athletes in both Cross Fit and Mixed Martial Arts who echoed this opinion. These athletes declined to speak on the record, fearing a public backlash against their points of view. A mixed martial arts fighter, Tammika Brents, later told an MMA website that she felt overpowered in her fight against transgender fighter Fallon Fox.
“I have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night,” Brents said. “I can’t answer whether it’s because she was born a [male] or not because I’m not a doctor. I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right.”
As Brents implied, there is never a truly level playing field in sports. She is usually able to overpower her opponents. Some athletes are simply stronger or bigger than their competitors — no matter whether they are cisgender or transgender. Rules can approximately create a fair competition by forbidding outright cheating, but no athlete expects to compete against others who are identically matched in size, strength, ability, or intelligence. Instead of prioritizing a level playing field, sports are inclusive, giving anyone a chance to compete.
And that’s what the current rules for transgender athletes try to do. Some athletes, like Fader, have legitimate arguments against the rules. At the moment, the rules governing reflect what Dr. Vilain said: It’s not about making everyone biologically equal.
Dr. McKinnon and other transgender athletes often reference an analogy that, for some readers, may be challenging to swallow. I’ve recited a few times now, and each time it makes more sense.
Imagine a young girl who is incredibly tall and will someday stand well above six feet. Should she pursue gymnastics or diving — her height may be a hindrance, and she will likely never score top results. Should she pursue volleyball, however, her height will be an incredible competitive advantage. After thousands of hours of hard work and training, she may even reach the Olympics.
Now, imagine a young girl who was born into a male’s body. At some point in her life, she transitions to become female, yet elements of her male anatomy remain. Should this young girl pursue a sport like gymnastics or the pole vault, her physiology may not help her excel. Nobody will raise concerns over unfair advantages in these sports. But, what if this girl chooses cycling or weightlifting or some other sport where here unique physiology gives her a competitive advantage?
Is her anatomy something to be looked at the same way society views the tall girl’s height? Or, is it something to be punished?
A lot of cycling fans tune out once world championships are over — but they shouldn’t. This year’s edition of Il Lombardia was a perfect example of the autumn action that the final monument of the season can offer. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) finally delivered the big win he’s been dreaming of, beating none other than Mr. Lombardia himself, defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). Time for a roundtable about why this race is meaningful for these riders and fans like us.
What does this victory mean for Thibaut Pinot?
Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: It means he can finally ride technical descents! I owe Pinot and my colleague Fred Dreier a big apology for laughing at the suggestion that he could win Lombardia, but he proved up to the task. This win also means that it is time for Pinot to finally put to bed the notion that he should ride for grand tour GC. He’s clearly got a knack for hilly one-days or stage hunting. Commit to that plan, and give Valverde a run for his money in the Ardennes!
Dane Cash, @danecash: A rider who often contends for big wins but rarely pulls them off, Pinot proved this weekend in Italy that he does have what it takes to close the deal on a major result. Health issues and crashes have often derailed his aspirations over the past few seasons, and eventually, you start to wonder if a rider constantly battling those kinds of problems will ever put it all together. Pinot did on Saturday, which should be a huge morale boost for him after a tough year.
Chris Case, @chrisjustincase: I imagine this victory feels tremendous to a guy like Pinot. Earlier in his career, when he had some success at the Tour, immense pressure was immediately heaped on him – ‘The next great French cyclist, the man who will turn around French results at grand tours, has finally arrived!’ It hasn’t played out that way. That isn’t to say he isn’t a contender at grand tours, but his attacking style and climbing panache may suit him even better. And if there’s any race that fits someone of that profile, it’s Il Lombardia.
Surely Vincenzo Nibali wasn’t racing for second place, but he fought hard to earn that result. What was that all about?
Spencer: Nibali’s Bahrain-Merida team fully committed to his chances at Lombardia. I got to think that when he looked back and saw the chase group with several of his guys in the mix, he knew he’d have to give it one more push to pay off their efforts, even if it wasn’t a win. He likely also wanted to prove to himself that he’s still got the edge after his season went off the rails at the Tour.
Dane: For one, Nibali loves this race, and you have to assume he was hungry to do as well he could no matter the circumstances. After a tough, injury-marred summer, it’s possible Nibali was trying to show us what might have been had he not had his unfortunate run-in with a fan at the Tour de France.
Case: It seemed Nibali initially threw in that dig to set up one of his teammates, Ion Izagirre or Domenico Pozzovivo, both of whom had rejoined him along with the rest of the group. But in the ensuing hesitation, and with the aid of the descent, Nibali got a substantial gap. “The Shark” is a racer. He took advantage of a good situation to end his season on a high.
Rigoberto Urán looked like he had the legs to win this one. Evaluate EF Education-First Drapac’s tactics. What went wrong?
Spencer: Clearly Bahrain-Merida’s aforementioned tactics did not help matters for EF, but I was surprised none of the other teams were willing to pitch in when poor little Danny Martinez did all that chasing ahead of the Civiglio. Maybe instead they hold Martinez to mark a dangerous move (i.e., Nibali and Pinot)? He certainly looked to have good legs.
Dane: Hindsight is 20/20 but Urán and Co. should have been more aggressive on the Sormano climb — and more attentive to Thibaut Pinot. It was no secret the Frenchman was on sterling form. This year’s finale was not quite as hard as last year’s, and that made the Sormano a more attractive option for the attackers despite its distance from the line. If Urán had stuck with Pinot, this might have been a very different race.
Chris: The steep wall at Sormano proved to be the decisive moment of the race. One could be forgiven for not predicting this since it was so far from the finish. But given his recent results, Pinot was the man to watch. And given his racing smarts, Nibali can never be discounted. If you have the legs to go with that pair, you do it.
Il Lombardia is usually overshadowed by the other monument classics. How did this edition stack up, from a fan’s perspective?
Spencer: An exciting finale like this one goes a long way to giving Lombardia some much-needed hype. Sure, the timing on the calendar is tough, but if we keep seeing top riders focus on the race, I think it’ll pick up steam, especially as fans tire of the Tour’s predictability. The difficulty is that usually climbers aren’t so on-form in the fall. Having worlds in Innsbruck on a mountainous route gave Lombardia a boost.
Dane: Lombardia’s place on the calendar is the only reason this race gets overshadowed. It’s usually among the best one-days of the year from a racing perspective, with big stars attacking each other on tough climbs — and that was exactly what we got yet again this time around. It’s hard to ask for more out of a race than what Lombardia delivered this weekend, with everything from the always-excellent scenery to a long-range attack taking the day.
Chris: I thought it made for riveting TV. You had the defending champion launching an audacious attack. You had an on-form and hungry Pinot going with him. You had two of the most talented yet unproven racers in Egan Bernal and Primoz Roglic in the mix. And then you had the dynamic of Pinot being the better climber matched against Nibali the far superior descender. Not to mention Nibali’s crafty move to snatch second at the end.
Editors’ Note: Author Samuel Abt was a long-time sports journalist and columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He covered the Tour de France and other professional cycling events for more than 30 years. A resident of the Paris area, Abt retired several years ago. Below, he recounts an encounter he had with Donald Trump at the inaugural Tour de Trump bicycle race.
For part of an afternoon back in 1989, I belonged to the inner circle of Donald Trump.
The reason was an erroneous remark I made before the start of the inaugural Tour de Trump, the 10-stage, 837-mile race on the East Coast, which he was bankrolling for $750,000. Years later, the Tour de Trump became the Tour du Pont, but back in 1989 it was still named for its founder.
Bicycle races, I noted in a report from the start in Albany, New York, usually were named for the territory they traversed, not for the real estate mogul behind them. What matter?
“When (the name) was initially stated, I practically fell out of my seat,” Trump said. “”I said, ‘Are you kidding? I will get killed in the media if I use that name. You absolutely have to be kidding.’”
However, according to Billy Packer, an impresario of the race with Mike Plant, Trump changed his mind within 20 seconds, (Packer initially planned to call it the Tour de Jersey before coming to his senses.)
So Tour de Trump it was and its namesake was thinking big.
“It can go longer, it can go further,” he said in an interview with me. “It can start in New York and go out to San Francisco, throughout the country. I really feel that when I attach my name to something, I have to make that something successful. My name is probably my greatest asset and I have some nice assets.”
We were talking in Albany because I had remarked incautiously to somebody that the Tour de Trump peloton would be surrounded by many more cars than even the Tour de France provided. That somebody reported my remark to somebody and eventually Trump heard about it. Cars are expensive to rent and run, he said, and his secretary called me to arrange a talk with the boss about how many cars protected the Tour de France.
By that time, I had remembered that the Tour de France had thousands of gendarmes blocking every side road into its riders’ path and the Tour de Trump had only its envelope of accompanying cars. I corrected myself to Trump, who was gracious, even a touch humble.
“I have a tendency to overdo sometimes,” he admitted. “We have a bigger production staff than a lot of people would have. I’d rather have too many cars and good circulation than not enough where things don’t work out.
“I’m not guided totally by the dollar, despite what a lot of people would think. I really am guided more by what I think is good, what can happen. And I think, ultimately, that’s one of the reasons I have become successful: the fact that I don’t necessarily just go by the pure bottom line.”
Standing outside his limousine during part of the opening ceremonies and later at a whirlwind series of meetings with state legislators, I interviewed him for a couple of hours. Then he was off to his helicopter to return to Manhattan and I was out of his inner circle. We did not connect the next year, his last before the race became the Tour DuPont.
But I saw Trump again in person in 1989, and only ever since on television, on the stage into Baltimore, where I lived for many years. Knowing that sullen city and its high unemployment rate well, I was curious how Trump would be received when he arrived at the Inner Harbor with his yacht. Not his yacht exactly — it belonged to a Middle East influence peddler and had been leased to Trump, who, of course, attached his name to it.
The Trump Princess, I think it was called, and it was huge by that era’s standards. The stage organizers had reportedly insisted he bring it to town as a touch of class.
So there it sat at dockside as guests trooped aboard for a cocktail party. Watching it all was a large crowd of men in undershirts, whom I took to be former workers at the immense Bethlehem Steel plant, now mostly closed. What would they think of Trump?
They loved him! Not for Baltimore to repeat the protests in New Paltz, New York, where signs of “Die Yuppy Scum” flourished. In Baltimore, the men in their undershirts loved him! Adored him! Hung on his every word!
In short, the crowd connected with Trump and his glamour.
He arrived to their cheers and applause, waved indulgently snd strolled up the gangplank. The crowd stayed around all afternoon, ignoring the race stage to gawk at the yacht and cheer again whenever Trump appeared on deck.
It was stunning. If he ever goes into politics, I often said afterward, he’ll be a tremendous success.
Few believed me. The real estate guy? they scoffed. The casino guy?