Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reality - A decade to remember, to forget

Reality. Clearly the defining word of the decade - wait, hold your cringe, I'm not going to sing or dance or cast myself off in a balloon. At first had had no interest in writing some recap of 2009 and then I started thinking, the reality is a decade ago I couldn't have done this, a decade ago this reality didn't exist, and a decade ago I didn't really know enough about pedaling, pedestrian or pro, to comment.

Looking back at the "otts", our first decade in the new millennium, it would be easy to ring up a series of cycling highlights, to mention a few:
  • Lance Armstrong's incredible run a top the TdF charts and equally amazing run from every doping scandal that plagued the rest of the peloton,
  • birth of the "blue train" which cemented the realization that there is only one future way to achieve lasting superiority in the grand tours.
  • Stuart O'Grady's Paris-Roubaix snatched from the jaws of the contenders playing pave-chess.
  • And there was Gilberto Simoni embarrassingly being doped by his gandmother's home-made candy? (or this version: He ate coca candies bought by his Aunt while in South America.)
  • we also saw 10 days of how a jersey of yellow can transform a simple bicycle race into a passion play and forever change the life of its accidental protagonist. Thomas Voeckler did just that...

In 2004 the non-factor Frenchman escaped with five other riders during stage 5, in a calculated move not-to-defend Voeckler was "given" the yellow jersey. What Johan Bruyneel and world did not calculate was his tenacity at defended his jersey for ten days. Inspired with golden winds on his shoulders, and intense media attention all around him, Voeckler rode like a pro possessed. He survived the certain death in the Pyrenees, by 8 seconds. Voeckler finally surrendered the jersey to Armstrong on stage 15 in the French Alps. Five years later, almost to the stage, Voeckler won his first ever Tour stage. The little-boy-love of cycling that spread across his face as he crossed the line in stage 5 that day epitomized the joy seen around the world in the Millenium's first decade worth of charity rides, local races, birthday new bikes and Kids out for a Saturday ride - we love our bikes. Thanks Thomas!!

We also saw one of the great solo break-away performances of the past few decades on stage 17 of the 2007 Tour - regardless your feeling about Floyd Landis' final outcome no amount of 'overnight' drugs could produce the monster ride he delivered that day (psst - the French still can't explain why 9 other before and after tests are all normal?). For all of us who can't remember seeing the Coppi's and Merckx's peloton shattering breaks that stage into Morzine felt vintage.

But, there are a few other bits worth considering as we launch forward "where no man has gone before".
Okay - so here we go...

Comeback of the Decade has to be Lance Armstrong, not the second-coming, but the overcoming of 14 tumors, a 20% chance of survival, THEN going on to win seven straight Tour de Frances (ok - only 6 this decade). After going through cancer this past decade with several friends and family, not everyone pulling off the miracle comeback - what LA did blows me away. Regarding the cycling - from the beginning in 1999's Le Passage du Gois to the cross-country downhill into Gap in 2003 to passing Ullrich in the opening Prologue in 2005 - it was all frigg'n amazing.

Most Frustrating was George Hincapie's inability to capture the slippery pave trophy. I mean c'mon, how many guys finally have two teammates in a final selection, with 10 sectors of cobbles to go, and have the bloody handle bars snap off in your hands - only to leave George looking like the hapless coyote in a ridiculous episode of the Road Runner. The Paris-Roubaix curse is even more painful when one hears George despair, "I wake up every morning thinking of winning it." By decade's end we all were reconciling ourselves to the old saying "it's not about having luck, but not having bad luck" when it comes to the Hell of the North. PS - the 2001 P-R sucked as well, sorry George.

In the category of Great Moments Missed I would nominate Jens Voigt's indefatigable performance in the 2005 La Flèche Wallonne
. In a decade of memorable breaks this one went essentially unseen, but is worth the price of the World Cycling DVD so it can be watched again and again. Voigt in a break is nothing unusual, and we have been treated to many, but this ride is epic! Jens holds the charging Liguigas peloton off. Not just off, but OFF. Kilometer after kilometer sweep under Jens' wheels and they can't catch him. Phil and Paul go from commentators, to skeptics, to bewilderment, to finally cheerleaders. A K and a half from the base of the ridiculously steep Huy he succumbs - but damn, what any of us would do to ride like the wind and scare the shit out of the peloton like that! Buy the DVD!! It's 15 bucks of endlessly repeatable pleasure.

Cycling is unique, for the most part, in its old world credo to Great Sportmanship. When a rider dies on the roads we have seen the entire peloton ride at "half mast" all day - a rolling tribute - not just some fleeting minute of silence before the national anthem. While agreed sprinters play "argy-bargy, bumper cars" in the final straights, and one never knew when Robbie McEwen was going to head-butt you into the barriers, Jens refusing to take the line on Garate on stage 19 in the 2006 Giro d'Italia, despite DS Bjarne Riis going ballistic in his ear. Why? B
ecause Jens had sat-on the little Spanish rider's wheel the last 5K up the climb and that's "just not right", shows the kinda sportsmanship and honor this sport holds. Thanks for making us proud, yet again, Jens!

And remember Jan Ullrich reaching back for LA's hand on Stage 14 in 2001 atop Luz Ardiden
. Armstrong was ahead by a few feet as they approached the line, and then he did something he rarely did... he backed off the gas, sat down and soft pedaled the last couple meters. It insured Ullrich finish ahead of him by half a bike length, which put him in third place for the day and garnered him the 8 sec. time bonus. Those eight ticks clenched Jan's 2nd place in Paris.

Questionable Sportsmanship is a tough one considering the abominable move by Theo Bos in the Tour of Turkey (irony?) to grab race leader Daryl Imprey in the final straight-away of stage 8 and fling him into the barrier - therefore I instead award the No Brainer Jerk-Ass Award.

Back to the QS Award, there I have to go with Discovery Channel Team tactics through the persona of George Hincapie. It's mid-decade, 2005, Stage 15 of the Tour de France, the Queen Stage, logically Discovery puts a man in the break-of-the-day - George - and he is told to sit on, in case race leader Armstrong needs him - fare enough. Then on the way to the forum George isn't needed, so go for it, from (for the way it should be done - see Jens above)

It's a TEAM sport as German fans don't get. Once again Jens Voigt takes the award for doing his job as part of a team in the 2004 Tour (yes, I'm a homer), from CyclingNews at the time:

After being called "Judas" and other names by German fans on Alpe d'Huez yesterday, CSC's super workhorse Jens Voigt has defended himself strongly. Voigt was heavily criticised by the Germans after he played a key role in chasing down T-Mobile's Jan Ullrich during stage 15, following the orders of his team director Bjarne Riis who wanted to protect Ivan Basso's second place. Despite the fact that Voigt and Ullrich ride for different teams and Voigt was merely obeying instructions, the partisan German fans did not see it that way and hurled abuse at him yesterday.

"I was sworn at on the road for being a traitor," said Voigt to DPA. "That was open hostility. I would have got off and yelled at them. National politics or war have no place here. It should only be about sport. I've always tried to simply live my life. The uncalled for criticism really hurt me. "

Voigt said that his riding in Stage 15 was purely for his captain Ivan Basso. "Of course it broke my heart to ride behind Jan. I would rather see Jan win the Tour than Lance. But that is my job. If I didn't ride behind, the Tour would already be finished for me and I would be sitting on an aeroplane on the way back home, because I hadn't fulfilled my contract."

Voigt also criticised the commentators on German TV channel ARD, who he believed prompted the outcry. "That was certainly the trigger for the witch hunt," he said. "ARD and T-Mobile, that's a little narrow. It's the first time that I have been sworn at by fans. That's why I'm so sour."

The German also explained that he gave Andreas Klöden water with 7 km to go in Stage 15, and noted that he had worked completely for Ullrich in the Olympics in 2000. "And I will also die in Athens for him," he noted.

PS - Stage 10 in 2008 says TEAM as well

Fleet-a-Foot Award
goes to the unsung heroes behind all the podium winners. A crash in the final kilometer nearly denied Denis Menchov the Giro d'Italia, the victory was saved by the fast acting Vincent Hendricks. The Rabobank mechanic jumped from the team car while it was still moving, and had a spare bike from the roof before Menchov had risen from the slick cobbles. The final margin over Danilo di Luca (and a wee bit of CERA as we later found out) was a scant 41 sec. Hendricks said shruggingly with a smile, "I did my job"

Just-n-Time Award has to go to Cadel Evans. After nearly a decade of attackless riding the likes of which Tour penalty patriarch Henri Degrange would have invented a new time penalty for, Cadel finally realized he was running out of road as well as decade so finally put in an attack - holy shit, it worked - results: new jersey, new team, new decade, new attitude. "Good on ya mate"

But a small handful of events may have "slipped off the back" as Paul Sherwin might say. These are my Humble Heroes. Number one was as recent as this past summer, in the 2009 version of the Grand Boucle. For 11 stages Dutchman Kenny van Hummel (#199 above) electrified the blog-o-sphere and a handful of headlines with his refusal to fail. His suffrage was heroic and followed in the pedal strokes of the greatest Lanterne Rouge in history, who also graced this inaugural millennial decade, Belgian Wim Vansevenant. By a mere 10 minutes Wim missed capturing the rouge four consecutive times, his trio of lanterns from 2006 to 2008 however remains a mark unequaled in 97 romps to the Champs.

Number two goes to Dr. Bob Breedlove who died tragically in the 2005 RAAM. His patented words of departure were, "Just Another Day In Paradise" when riding off, graced with a smile. He finished the grueling non-human event four times solo, twice tandem. He rode with style, passion and a gentle smile - the way we all should remember to ride every time we saddle-up, clip-in and pedal-off.

And third, but not least, is Brian Benson, a local Portland hero who selflessly organizes the annual bike-give-away from the Community Cycling Center. Every year-end holiday season upwards of a thousand little bikes roll out of the donated Emanuel Hospital atrium attached to smiles and excited feet. Many of these kids would never know
"Just Another Day In Paradise" if not for Brian and the volunteers.

Dope, Dopers and Being Dooped. And finally, can we please lift our sights, and move on already! Despite what many would like to think this was not the "decade of the dopers". Any casual student of Le Tour, the pulsing heart of pro racing for it's only century, cheating is not new, cheaters have always been. Founder and maniacal director Henri Degrange even suggested in his own L'Auto newspaper in 1924, defending the Tour under attack by critics, that taking drugs might not be objectionable to complete a race.

And finally, Happy New Year everyone, thanks to everyone who reads, comments, and shares my thoughts with others - and remember if you have the joy of riding your bike you are living better than most people on Earth - smile, be safe, and enjoy the ride -

"Just Another Decade In Paradise"

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