Cycling’s saviours

As I was scanning the news this week, an item caught my eye. Ben Spies, Moto GP Rookie of 2010, racing with his own Elbowz Racing Elite Cycling Team, had finished a very respectable 12th, and first in his category (Cat 2), in the 90 mile Copperas Cove Classic road race. Heath Blackgrove, a former New Zealand Road Race Champion, and leader of the team, finished atop the podium. 

Spies, nicknamed “Elbowz” because he rides his motor bike with his elbows sticking out,  set the team up this year which, while aiding development of local talent, will also support Spies’s pet charities. The team, a mixture of emerging talent and seasoned riders, will compete largely on the US Criterium circuit, as well as the odd UCI race, select US NRC and regional races. It’s a 2-tiered squad with a roster of  eight full-time elite riders and six locally based ones.

Of course, Spies is not the only speedster who enjoys taking to two non-motorised wheels. Alan Prost competes (and places well) in a number of cyclosportives, including L’Etape du Tour. Last year I had the not inconsiderable pleasure of riding from London to Paris in the company of Nigel Mansel who, you’ll be reassured to learn, is nothing like he’s portrayed in the advertisement for a comparison website. Seven times Rally World Champ Seb Loeb, I understand, is frequently found astride a cross country bike. Moreover, a year or so ago, I recall former F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso expressed a desire to set up his own ProTour Cycling Team.

Maybe, this is what cycling needs. A real shot in the arm. The boys on two and four motorised wheels earn enough to set up and run their own cycling teams. Plus, they could presumably tap into their existing network of sponsors. This would allow them to compete against one another all season, on and off the track, whatever the discipline. Loeb’s team pitted against Alonso’s, Spies’s and Rossi’s. Now that would be worth seeing. Move over Pat and make room for Bernie!

Divine intervention

I was saddened this week to learn of the untimely death of Aldo Sassi, one of the most reputable cycling trainers, based at the Mapei Centre in Varese. It was he who had worked with Cadel Evans to lift the rainbow jersey in 2009 and had assisted Ivan Basso in his quest for an untainted maglia rosa.

I had recently read an interesting article on his training methods which are markedly similar to those of my own trainer.  Sassi worked initially from the VO2 max and power output at the rider’s anaerobic threshold. From this he built a training programme based on a 3-day algorithm:

  • Day 1 – strength and resistance training on hills
  • Day 2 – anaerobic threshold work
  • Day 3 – long rides with climbs

Additionally, Sassi believed in a rider’s clear commitment to goals which needed to be shared with and understood by his team. Lastly, he believed that mental and inner strength were the all-important factors.

He likened a cyclist to  Formula 1 saying that while a rider has certain physiological attributes, “if you only have the driver and no car you cannot win. You have to have the driver as well as the car. Some might try to show that if you have a good driver you could still win with a bad car. This is not true in cycling. You have to be able to produce 6 watts per kilogram on the climbs or you will eventually lose.”

Sassi was recently criticized for working with Riccardo Ricco. Frankly, I thought, given Sassi’s sterling reputation, it was a stroke of genius on Ricco’s part to commit to working with him. Sassi said ” I think I made a good choice in selecting Riccardo Ricco. I am sure of it. He has the motor, the car, but the driver is not completely there. I am going to help him build his mental strength and self-belief.” Sassi is to be lauded, Ricco has paid the price and, like everyone, deserves a second chance.

If  it was left to Pat McQuaid, UCI President, he wouldn’t, however, be getting a second chance. McQuaid was quoted in L’Equipe this week as saying if he were a team manager, he wouldn’t hire Ricco. I suspect that Vacansoleil have hired Ricco because he will garner them plenty of points in the all-new UCI ranking system and help them stay in the sport’s first division. Remember, Mr McQuaid “what gets measured is what gets done”.

I’ve already blogged on this very topic but frankly it’s hard to support a system that seems to drive away rather than attract sponsors. It’s even hard to get sponsors to commit if you can’t guarantee inclusion at the world’s best races. Pegasus Cycling recently lost a sponsor but have fortunately been saved at the nth moment by another. Rumours abounded that Geox, both a new sponsor and a global brand, might pull out after being excluded from the first division, despite ranking ahead of teams that have been included.

This problem has been best articulated (IMHO) by Jonathan Vaughters in his blog on the cyclingnews.com website entitled “The Geox Paradox” where he highlights the current issues in sponsorship. This man knows what he’s talking about, you cannot say that of everyone involved in the sport.

My deepest sympathy goes to Aldo Sassi’s family, friends, clients  and colleagues: the world of cycling has suffered a grave loss.

Memories of Melbourne II

I know, I know, my second day in Sydney and I’m still reminiscing about Melbourne, or more specifically, Geelong. In Melbourne airport I met some of the Lithuanian squad on their way back to Marseille. Obviously, they had more modest ambitions than some teams but overall were pleased with their performances. So few have either the ability or opportunity to win that they have to set themselves more realistic goals.

The Moroccan squad were no doubt delighted that their rider Mohammed Said was part of the original breakaway group and featured strongly in the television coverage. Likewise, Esad Hasanovic from Serbia, the rider stranded in no man’s land for a large part of Sunday’s race, was probably being cheered on by lots of Serbs around the world. Yukiya Arashiro was the first Japanese to ever finish in the top ten in the Men’s Race. The Japanese team were staying in our Geelong base camp and they were delighted with that result. I know road racing is becoming more popular in a country that already has a significant cycling culture, albeit in Keirin racing.

My beloved, who flew back to Milan via Doha, was on the same flight as Philippe Gilbert and the Evans’. He talked to both of them and said they were pleased with their respective performances. They tried their best and that’s all anyone can expect.  The Belgians came away empty handed, not so the Australians, who collected three medals: one of each.

The Germans topped the medal table. A country that’s fallen out of love with cycling and which, at the end of this season, will no longer have a Pro-Tour team. But that didn’t stop them picking up four medals: three silvers and a bronze.  Great Britain’s hardware was picked up in the time-trials. Silver for David Millar and gold for Emma Pooley who was also a formidable presence in the Road Race. Who knows what Alex Dowsett might have achieved if he’d had a mechanic as deft as Tony Martin’s. Next up USA, whose Taylor Phinney won both a gold and a bronze medal.

Scandinavia garnered a full-house with Hushovd, Breschel and Johansson. Italy and Switzerland each collected one gold. Vos won her 4th consecutive silver, after gold in Salzburg, and looked on the verge of tears, she’s not a lady who likes to lose. Canada and New Zealand each picked up a bronze, or should that be half a bronze in the case of Canada?

Spain’s performance was disappointing. Their highest placed rider in all the races was Freire, who finished 6th in the road race. However, I do know that the team was much affected by all the doping news, particular that relating to Alberto, who is close to both Luis  Leon and Samu Sanchez, fanned by McQuaid’s pointed comments about Spain. I seem to recall they rather faded into the background when Valverde faced similar approbation in Stuttgart in 2007.    

I didn’t get a chance to ask JaJa if he was pleased with the performance of the French, Jeannie aside, but the 5th place of Arnaud Demare in the U23 road race and they way they animated the Men’s Race, not forgetting Romain Feillu’s 10th place, must have shown the team’s heading in the right direction.  

McQuaid has declared the Championships a success and said over 156,000 watched from the roadside on Sunday. How to they know? Does someone go round and count them? Or is there some agreed formula which takes account of the length of the course and the depth of the crowds?

And the winning tickets are………………

Ten days later than previously promised, Christian Prudhomme has opined. The 22 teams for the 2010 Tour de France are as expected: the sixteen teams covered by the September 2008 agreement, the four new Pro-Tour Teams (Katusha, Sky, Garmin, Radioshack), and the two most promising Continental Pro-Tour teams (Cervelo and BMC). So there’s no room at the Tour for Saur-Sojasun, Vacansoleil or Skil Shimano although they are on the substitutes bench.

One can only imagine the long faces over at Vacansoleil HQ. The Tour starts in their home town, they’re guaranteed to animate any race, they sponsored Paris-Nice and they bought the brothers Feillu. They’ve also been shut out of the Giro and a number of other ASO races.

Pat McQuaid had been openly critical of  the length of time ASO was taking to make a decision. However, three months before the start of the Tour is not unreasonable, nor is taking two months to assess the strengths of the contenders’ teams. It’s not been an easy decision. Teams are bound to be disappointed and sponsors may well question the benefits of sponsorship if they don’t get the global exposure afforded by the Tour.

However, those teams who were disappointed this year need to be patient. There is no agreement in place as to who is guaranteed a spot next year. There are a number of sponsors withdrawing from the sport (Milram, Saxo Bank, Caisse d’Epargne) and some considering withdrawing (Bbox Bouygues Telecom). Teams, like last year, may be relegated from or promoted to the Pro-Tour ranks. And, assuredly,  there will be new sponsors. This changing landscape is what makes the sport so interesting for the fans but a wee bit nerve-racking for the riders.

Postscript: Prudhomme today defended his decision in L’Equipe. However, he might as well have said that it was a no-brainer.  The two Continental Pro Tour teams selected have a former Tour Winner (Sastre) and a former green jersey wearer (Hushovd) and the current World Champion, who’s twice been second (Evans). These outweigh any French riders on Dutch teams or, indeed, French riders on French teams.