Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chef Prudhomme Tweaks the Recipe

Drum-roll please.

Today in Paris was the day. According to papa ASO's own website, "On Tuesday 19 October precisely, more than 4 000 persons and 500 medias from all over the world will descend on the Palais des Congrès in Paris to discover the detail of the stages of the 2011 Tour, which will take place from 2 to 24 July that year along the roads of France and …"

That was if those 4,000 persons could fight their way to their seats. In the streets outside the Palais it was getting worst than the chaos of a million rabid inebriated cyclo-fans blocking a TT up l'Alpe d'Huez. The French are engaged in that most French of all annual events - strikes! While the French streets were alive with honking horns and protesters across the country - heck, even the school kids were blocking schools (maybe part of their education to learn how to strike in the future--sort of a French rite of passage)--things are getting seriously out of control!

The one pocket of serenity? The Tour route announcement ceremony.

While socially the country is popping at the seams - petrol stations are running out of gas, students running amuck and President Sarkozy realizing de Gaulle was right, "Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?" - how can you govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese? The 2011 Tour route that was revealed promises a taste of something old and new:

2011 Tour de France route announced

If the legendary Henri Desgrange was ever going to have a reincarnation could it be Christian Prudhomme? It appears he is dedicated, as was Desgrange, to tweak and tweak the recipe until his Tour finds its perfection.

Generally the recipe get's most of its tweaking in the route, this year Chef Prudhomme went right to the heart of the ingredients - the jerseys:

Green Jersey - PMU. It is worn by the leader of the points classification. New in 2011: the flat stages will only include one intermediary sprint with points awarded to the first 15 riders. The aim is to systematically involve the sprinters in the pack, even after the passage of a breakaway.

Polka Dot Jersey - Carrefour. It is worn by the leader of the best climber classification. New for 2011: the points system and number of riders awarded points on each climb has been revised in order to reduce the gaps between the competitors. For example, points will only be doubled for a finishing line at the summit of 2nd, 1st and highest level climbs.

Chef Prudhomme has more in connection with the Tour's originator than just being French. Both men rose from careers in the media, albeit a century apart. Selling to the public is at its core the same whether newspapers and bicycle ads or radio and television and global corporate sponsorship. Prudhomme and Desgrange are in that sense cut from exactly the same marketing cloth.

Their respective early paths guiding the Tour share some similarities as well. While Desgrange got his inaugural 1903 Grand Boucle off successfully, his 1904 Tour became a near disaster and ended with the first victor, the 1903 winner Maurice Garin, being stripped of the title for cheating, along with the next three riders, resulting in the still youngest ever winner 19 year old Henri Cornet being elevated from fifth to first. Afterwards Desgrange struggled with the idea of even continuing the race sighting "blind emotions" driving the cheating. (Hmmm... blind emotions and the doping of today - some things never change?)

In 2006 Prudhomme's Directorial debut was christened with a similar disaster as the first GC winner since that 1904 Tour, American Floyd Landis, was stripped for cheating. In each case the pundits spoke of the death or degradation of the Tour. In each case the chefs knew they had to wrest control of their race or risk losing it. Desgrange tightened the recipe over the next few years until its outcome was organizationally crystal clear.

Similarly Prudhomme spent 2008 - 2010 testing a pinch of this and dash of that until he felt he had control. Then, interestingly, like his mentor, about half a decade into their careers each attempts to change the recipe so dramatically that all the patrons have to sit up and take notice. For Desgrange it was the bold introduction of the high summits of the Pyrenees in 1910 followed in 1911* by the monsters of the Alps including the mammoth Galibier. The Tour soared! For Prudhomme the centennial anniversary of the crossing of the Pyrenees sparked drama in 2010 race and he has returned with a mountainous Tour route for 2011 that echos that original Alpian debut one hundred years ago as it takes the battle for the malliot jaune up the most summit finishes since 2002 and in so doing produces what he calls, "suspense to remain until the very end but also have the possibility of a big battle well before that.”

(summit finishes for 2011 include the Pyrenean finishes at Luz-Ardiden and Plateau de Beille as well as the Alpine giant Galibier and L'Alpe d'Huez.)

Chef Prudhomme said at the presentation, "We are going towards simplification,” continuing,“The goal is to give these competitions more strength, and more suspense." Those were the aspirations of his mentor Master Chef Henri Desgrange 108 years ago when he cooked up this recipe. For cycling fans it means next July - Bon Appetite!!

*just a note - in 1911 Desgrange introduced the Alps as well as an iconic term and role to the Tour - le domestique. Although it should be noted that it was out of frustration and contempt that he did so in an editorial in his newspaper L'Auto - deriding the rider Maurice Brocco for assisting another cyclist.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Let the Leaves Fall

This weekend 26 teams - yes, including Radioshack, the apparent bad boys of racing - take to the start in Milano before riding north, looping the gorgeous Lake Como and finishing in the lake town of Como after climbing up from the lake shore and summiting the climb to Madonna del Ghisallo. They will ride through the falling leaves, la Classica della Foglie Morte, the Classic of the Falling Leaves. If I were a pro this is the one race every year I would ride for the sheer joy of riding my bike - and then end my season and stay in Bellagio for a few weeks.

And when I think of riding my bike for joy's sake Chris Horner often comes to mind. Horner loves this little race as well, and fairing quite well in it over the past few seasons - four tries and always top 15 with a best 7th. His participation in this year's race of the falling leaves looked in doubt when organizers RCS once again played punitive politics and "woops" left Radioshack off their start list. Something about some Italian dog eating the invitation, or something. Off that is until the Shack threatened to sue in the CAS and the UCI jumped in (part in the paternalness to insure next year's Pro Tour gets off to a credible start.)

After investigating the news, VeloNews has learned that the team will indeed be on the start line of the Lombardy race October 17. “There was an oversight by the organizers,” an inside source told this VeloNews. “A letter confirming the invitation was lost apparently. And so they are working with the UCI to work things out so the team can start the race.”

And to prove there is a cycling god the finale of the Classics season will be broadcast in America. To also prove that god has a sense of humor and a bit of devil in them, it will be televised on Universal Sports. But for the wise, know that you can turn the two US blithering idiots off and get a live Eurosport feed for some insightful, culturally intelligent and civilized commentary.

More about the fall Classic can be found in the new book published by VeloNews The Spring Classics. An adaptation of The Spring Classics: Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races can be found here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Lady Justice in case you need to feel the wind for freedom I have a tandem

They say she is blind, it might help judge the truth, but that makes it damn hard to ride a bike. Maybe that's why they invented tandems, so folks like Lady Justice can feel the wind in her hair and the joy of flying free down a country road. That's the same feeling little kids have when they peddle like little demons and race the wind. Freedom.

They say the truth will set you free - for Alberto Contador - and for cycling - I hope that IS the truth.

Contador also claimed that there have been moments in the past weeks when he has been tempted to leave cycling, especially in the immediate aftermath of being informed of his positive test. “I said to myself: I’m quitting it all,” he said. “I saw children around my house on their bikes imitating me, and I felt like telling them ‘Let it go, don’t try and be a champion and do it correctly. This world is unjust.’”
- from CyclingNews.com October 3rd, 2010

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Let the suffering begin and the doping end - it will still be hugely entertaining

Once again we are in the post-TdF fall classic tournament - "Disgrace the Doper." This year's doper target, Alberto Contador. Without judgment on guilt I wish we could all just fathom the reality of how difficult the Tour is and that winning it isn't or may never have been, possible without some magical elixir. This past weekend retired, after being banned and disgraced, pro cyclist Bernhard Kohl said in an interview posted on FanHouse.com,

"People know in cycling that's it's not possible to win the Tour de France without it," Kohl told FanHouse at the conclusion of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's annual science symposium on Monday. "It's three weeks, 3,000 km and you climb (the equivalent of) Mount Everest four times. That's just not possible."

He knows a little of what he speaks - the year Kohl was caught using CERA he took third in the world's most difficult sporting event. After riding just a fraction of those Cols on my first trip to the Alps several years ago I declared to my fellow cycling mate, "they are all on drugs!" That declaration came only after firsthand experience in a few back-to-back days in my 39x27, and I wasn't averaging 40kph or half that.

Up until that trip I was pretty staunchly in the 'Those Guys Are In A Special Breed' camp. I held out hopes, with some conviction, that they were riding pretty clean. That foray into the "big" mountains taught me reality isn't candy coated in hope, it's spiked with dope.

My thoughts here are not about right or wrong when it comes to doping, but more the acknowledgement that young Mr. Kohl is more in touch with reality, partially out of firsthand experience, than most of us. He went on to say,

"Floyd Landis won the Tour de France and his average speed was 40 kph," Kohl said. "This year it was Cantador and it was also about 40. It was nearly the same average speed. Landis was doped. Maybe in 10 or 15 years, you can win (without drugs) if we work with the anti-doping movement."

Can the Tour be won without using dope or some magic filled musette? Absolutely. But will we be entertained? The speeds will surely drop - faster than a pro coming off the Tourmalet. The average speeds of 40kph will be left in the mythical past. Yes, they will still climb faster than you and me, and descend faster, and just plain ride faster, but will we be entertained? And that's really what this comes down to - if we can be patient enough to still be entertained, then ya, the Tour can be won. David Walsh, chief sports writer for the London Sunday Times and author of From Lance to Landis and LA Confidential offered his reaction to CyclingNews, regarding clean riders vs others,

"The one thing that really should bother right minding thinking people is that no one cares for honest men getting screwed. The journalists don't care, the race officials don't care, the sponsors don't care, and sadly you have to say that the public don't care. That's always been the issue for me."

On one of the World Cycling DVDs of the Tour a few years back commentator Gary Emlach -while standing on the precipitous slope of the high Alps said something to the effect - most sports are generally improved with speed, cycling improves with suffering, and nothing dishes out suffering like the Alp and Pyrenees. If that's the case, then let the suffering begin and the doping end - it will still be hugely entertaining.