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 by: Bill Oetinger  6/1/2010

A tale of two tours

If you're a fan of bike racing, this past month of May offered up just about as much of the go-fast guys as you could wish for; a feast for the tifosi. In Europe, we had the first Grand Tour of the season, the Giro d'Italia. Half a world away in California, we had the upstart Tour of California, making its first, bold foray into what passes for prime time in the world of racing.

Transplanting the Tour of California from its frosty February roots to a warmer season was an inevitable progression for the little race with big ambitions. Plunking it down smack dab in the middle of the time slot of the second biggest stage race in the world was a decision that was considered by some to be clever and confident and by others to be potential commercial suicide. Which of those proves to be the correct assessment may not be known for several years.

Seeing as how the little-tour-that-could has chosen to go head-to-head with the big boys, it's only reasonable that we should compare them: consider what they offered us, the fans, in the way of spectator-sport value.

Before venturing into that review process, I should note that direct comparisons between the two are not absolutely essential nor possibly even relevant. After all, very few fans were faced with this choice: "Let's see, shall I go out and watch a Giro stage today or an AToC stage?" It wasn't even a case of having to choose between two TV broadcasts, airing simultaneously. Versus put all its eggs in the California basket and let the Giro go hang. Not even a one-hour, week-in-review show, unless I missed it somewhere. Thanks to streaming video, though, if you wanted to watch the Giro, it was easy enough to do. Just log on to Steephill.tv and click on the live feed of your choice from any of several European broadcasts, including--most days--one with English commentary. Happily for all bike race fans, it wasn't an either-or proposition. You could watch them both.

For the racers themselves, or their team managers, choosing between the two races was not quite so simple. Several teams chose to enter both events, but that meant fighting wars on two fronts, with diluted, diminished rosters the result. There were nine Pro and Pro Continental teams in the Tour of California--over half the field--and all of them except RadioShack also entered teams in the Giro. Some teams sent their A team to Italy and their B team to California; others stacked the deck the other way around.

For the folks running the Tour of California, the logic for moving into this busy, prime time slot makes sense. They point out that not too many riders who are focused on success at the Tour de France in July will also attempt to do well at the Giro in May. (Not since Marco Pantani in 1998 and Miguel Indurain in '92 and '93 has anyone won both Grand Tours in the same year.) Having another, somewhat less challenging race in that same spot on the calendar gives many riders another good venue for honing their mid-summer form without beating themselves up too thoroughly.

So this really isn't a turf war. The cycling world is big enough to support two big races at the same time, as long as the two races have slightly different goals, as is the case with these two…at least for now. Bearing in mind then that one race does not preclude the other, and that we can in fact have them both and enjoy them both, we can compare them for their relative worth as sporting challenges and as spectator entertainment.

Let's begin with the Giro, and I can start right out by saying I thought it was a ripping good stage race, with all the things we like in a big event. There was a high level of challenge in the course Angelo Zomegnan had put together, with mountain stages including Zoncolan, Mortirolo, and the Gavia, among others, and the infamous uphill time trial to Plan de Corones. There was a good cast of characters, with most teams bringing their best riders and those riders putting out their best efforts. It had horrible weather, which always makes for epic stages…not much fun for the riders, but great entertainment for those of us watching from the warmth and comfort of home.

About the only thing I might find to complain about was the lack of a really long, testing time trial…something in the 40-k range. They had a 33-k team time trial--which is a different sort of beast anyway--and the short-but-brutal uphill chrono, but all that left was the 8-k prologue and the 15-k ITT on the final day. I think all good grand tours should have one ITT at the longer distance: a real race of truth. But aside from that, it was a great course.

All honor to Ivan Basso and his Liquigas team. Basso was quite clearly the class of the field, and his team supported him very efficiently, even putting Vicenzo Nibali on the podium as well. A real show of force. I don't want to hear any carping about how Basso is--or was--dirty. He got caught with his hand in the medicine cabinet and he paid the price with a two-year suspension. He's done his time and is entitled to a second chance (as is Alexandre Vinokourov, who won the Giro del Trentino before the real Giro and finished a battling 6th in the main event). I always thought Basso's explanation about his blood doping--that he had the blood drawn and stored but never used it--was akin to Slick Willie Clinton's story that, yeah, he smoked marijuana but he never inhaled. Right…whatever. In any event, that's all old news now, and like many a past prodigal son, Basso is now supposedly a good boy and doing things the right way. We certainly hope so.

There were interesting happenings on almost every day of the Giro, and I want to cherry pick a few of them here. The tour began with a prologue through the streets of Amsterdam and followed with two stages in Holland. Not exactly your signature Giro settings. The stages looked more like spring classics, or those early days in a Tour de France, slicing and dicing through the cross winds off the North Sea in Normandy or Brittany. The winds put some big gaps in the group, but worse were the crashes that saw 50 or more riders on the ground in each of those first two stages, including favorite Cadel Evans, who lost 46 seconds to his main rivals while extricating himself from one big pig pile on Stage 3. Christian Vandeveld was taken out with a broken collarbone, putting his Tour prospects in doubt. Bradley Wiggins crashed at least once each day, losing time with each crash.

The team time trial went to Liquigas, favoring Basso and Nibali, while the teams of almost all the other GC favorites pretty much tanked, putting all those riders in the hole. (I'm not a big fan of TTT's, as they seem a rather esoteric subset of the sport, with individuals punished more than seems fair for having a weak team.) Evans lost another 1:21 here, so was over two minutes in arrears, mostly through no fault of his own, unless you call it his fault that he had a weak team or that he failed to whip his team along any faster. For what it's worth, Michele Scarponi, who ended up one spot ahead of Evans in the final standings, lost even more time on this day, with an even weaker team effort.

I confess to a mild rooting interest for Evans. Although he's Australian and lives in Italy and his team--BMC--is sponsored by Swiss interests, the team is headquartered in my neighborhood of Sonoma County. I know the team manager and was in fact told by him over dinner last December that he had just received word that the team would be invited to the Giro. Being let in on that secret ahead of the press release made me feel like a little bit of an insider, and it made me feel aligned with them, no matter how tenuously. So yes, I kept a special eye on Evan's progress.

He was in the maglia rosa when he crashed on Stage 3 and lost the jersey (to Vinokourov). Then he won a gloriously epic stage into Montalcino on Stage 7 and almost got back into the leader's jersey. This was another day of truly atrocious conditions. Not only was it raining, all day, but some of the route made use of gravel roads: the so-called strade bianche of Tuscany. They weren't "white roads" on this day though. More like chocolate mousse. It looked more like a mid-winter cross race than a stage of a grand tour. Evans' white World Champion's jersey was so soaked in brown goo, you couldn't see the rainbow stripes, but as a former World Cup champion mountain bike racer, Evans was as happy as a pig in shit. Basso and Nibali and half the Liquigas team crashed in one fast, wet, right-hand sweeper and lost two minutes in the process. So Evans was able to make up the two minutes he had lost previously. (Personal aside: I've ridden the same uphill finish into Montalcino, although the day I did it, it was very hot and very humid, so not at all like the cold mud bath these boys endured.)

One of the more intriguing moments of the Giro occurred on Stage 11, another day of constant rain and misery. In one of those inexplicable lapses that make stage racing so interesting, the patrons of the peloton--the Heads of State, as Phil Liggett would call them--allowed a big breakaway to get away and stay away to the finish, putting nearly 13 minutes into the leaders and turning the standings upside down. Unknown Aussie rookie Richie Porte suddenly found himself in the leader's jersey (instead of the Best Young Rider jersey he had been hoping for). Not far behind was David Arroyo of the Spanish Caisse d'Epargne team. Sometimes the devil is in the details in these races: Arroyo's team captain Marzio Bruseghin had withdrawn a couple of days before this; released from his domestique duties by the abandonment of his captain, Arroyo found himself a free agent, so went off in this star-crossed break and ended up dang near winning the whole Giro as a result.

(This was reminiscent of Stage 8 of the 2001 Tour de France, where a largish break stole over half an hour from the almighty Lance and his Postal delivery boys, who then had to chip away at the leads of Francois Simon and Andrei Kivilev, minute by minute, day after day, to finally recoup all the time they had thrown away so casually.)

That got us, more or less, to the final week of racing, with all the big mountains still to come. Nibali won the first mountain stage ahead of Basso, Evans, and Scarponi, and he did it with superior descending instead of stronger climbing. Porte gave up the jersey, but hung on gamely to finish 7th in the Giro, right behind Vinokourov, and back in that Best Young Rider jersey. Look for more from RIchie Porte in the years ahead. Arroyo did enough to take over the maglia rosa, and he defended it well, almost all the way to the end.

Then came the dreaded Zoncolan, with its 20% pitches. This time, Basso finally stated his case as the best of the best for this year. The lead group was whittled down on the lower slopes until finally just Basso and Evans were left. Then Basso lit it up one more time and Evans didn't have an answer. Well, he had an answer; it just wasn't a very good one. Interesting trivia: Basso and Evans share the same trainer: Aldo Sassi. But their climbing styles are so different. Basso sits and spins and looks elegant and effortless on the bike. Doesn't even look like he's going fast, except for the other riders disappearing off the back. Evans is all grunt and struggle, up out of the saddle, rolling his shoulders and mauling his handlebars like he's grappling with a pissed-off python. He looks like Santiago Botero on a bad day. And yet he's damn quick. Just not quite as quick as Basso, to the tune of 1:19. The plucky Scarponi chased Evans across the line, just a few seconds back.

On the rest day that followed, the riders could think about what was coming next: the 13-K uphill time trial on the gravel road to Plan de Corones, with more pitches of over 20% in store. (Think about that: 24% on gravel. In a time trial.) First off, Chapeau! to Stefano Garzelli, winning this torture rack of a ride in his final Giro. Behind him, Evans finished second and clawed back 38 of the seconds he had lost to Basso on the Zoncolan. This was good stuff! Two heavyweights, slugging it out. Toe to toe…biff, pow, bam!

After two relatively uneventful, intermediate stages, it all came to a head on Stage 19, featuring the notorious Mortirolo, sandwiched between Passo di Santa Christina and the final climb from Edolo to Aprica. Mortirolo is a legendary climb. I wrote about climbing this monster in another BikeCal column a few years ago. It is nasty, plain and simple. However, it really was not as decisive on this day as most of us expected it to be. Yes, it did make a difference, but not the obvious one I expected. As is only fitting on this epic Giro, it was again raining as the riders hit this wall. This time, Basso, teammate Nibali, and the never-give-up Scarponi dropped everyone else and got over the summit together. A quartet of Vinokourov, Sastre, Evans, and John Gadret--who had been an impressive third on Plan de Corones--worked to limit their losses on the climb, all of them losing anywhere between one and two minutes at the summit. Arroyo, defending the maglia rosa, was hanging on grimly a little further back.

Basso's biggest weakness as a rider is his timid descending, and when it's wet, he's even worse. This very tight, very technical descent was very wet. It was painful to watch. All the way down the hill, superb descender Nibali was looking over his shoulder to make sure he didn't drop his team captain, who was skittering around like a hog on ice. Meanwhile, the pursuers weren't doing much better. Evans came within a puckered sphincter of slamming head-on into a parked camper van. I thought he was a goner, but he slithered on past with an inch to spare. The revelation of the day was Arroyo, who crossed the summit three minutes behind and proceeded to catch and pass every single one of the pursuers on the way down the hill. He looked like he was on a dry road while everyone else was on ice. It was a breathtaking bit of brass-balled ballet.

At the bottom, on the downhill roll-out to Edolo, the pursuers had cut the Basso-Nibali-Scarponi lead to around 40 seconds. With five very strong riders chasing, I figured it was only a matter of time until they reeled them in. Didn't happen. This is what makes bike racing so fascinating. The final uphill from Edolo to Aprica is not that daunting: 1600' up in 10 miles for about a 3% average. You would think a highly motivated Evans and Arroyo, along with their three companions, could put some time into the guys ahead. But they didn't. In fact, they lost over two minutes and ended up coming in 3:05 behind the leading trio, effectively ending the Giro right there, on this modest, uncategorized climb.

How could they let that happen? Well, first of all, the guys ahead never let up. They worked together well--two were teammates--and they kept at it, all the way to the line. But the five guys behind? Only Evans and Arroyo seemed inclined to work. Vino and Sastre and Gadret looked like they were out on a Saturday club ride. I don't exactly get this. Sastre and Vino were both well placed and should have been motivated to work to improve those placings. But they just didn't seem to care. It's always possible they were just tapped out…nothing more in the tank. A three-week stage race can do that to you, not to mention just having done the Mortirolo as a warm-up, in the rain. So maybe it was just dead legs, like all those poor saps at Paris-Roubaix, watching Cancellara motor off into the sunset, and not being able to do a damn thing about it. In spite of his stout work and hairball descending, Arroyo finally had to turn the leader's jersey over to Basso. The determined domestique made a lot of new fans on this Giro. He ended up second overall at 1:51.

There was another mountain stage to go and then that dinky time trial in Verona to wrap things up. But as it turned out, nothing much happened on either stage to alter the final outcome. A few riders shifted up and down a place, but not at the front of the field. Evans made a heroic bid to win the final mountain stage to Passo del Tonale, but he came up a few seconds short. He scratched back a few seconds from the leaders, but it was too little, too late. After the tour, Evans revealed that he had the flu throughout much of the Giro, running a fever and running low on energy. Having recently caught a flu bug while on a recreational tour, I can relate, but only kind of: I took a day off to rest. Evans kept on hammering.

All in all, it was a glorious grand tour, with a worthy, honorable winner and a robust batch of challengers who kept it suspenseful right up to the end (or close to it anyway). I couldn't have asked for much more. Great stuff!

Now, what about the Tour of California? We got into a brew pub brawl about this the other evening. Just a verbal brawl, but definitely not in agreement with one another. One of my friends thought it was a ding dong donnybrook, with the results hanging in the balance right up to the final miles. I begged to differ. And seeing as how I get to write this column, I get the last word in this debate (in this space anyway).

I'll cut to the chase and tell you what my grievance is right up front. It's the same thing I and a lot of other people have been grousing about with the AToC right since the first edition, five years ago. They still do not have a decisive mountaintop finish, and until they do, the event will be, in my opinion, a Mickey Mouse, bush-league affair.

Let's look at the results and dice them up into their constituent parts here…

Mick Rogers first. Dave Zabriskie second at :09. Levi Leipheimer third at :25. (Same three guys that were on the podium last year, although in a different order.) How did they get there? How were those little time differences achieved?

Put simply, Rogers put five seconds into Zabriskie and 11 seconds into Leipheimer in the one, short, relatively flat time trial in LA. Aside from those seconds, the only other time differences were accrued as bonus seconds in three different sprints. Rogers had two seconds and a third; Dave Z had a first and a third; Levi had a third.

Yes, you could say that they were contesting those sprints because of selections made on climbs prior to the finishes. This is true. But those stages all still ended in sprints. On Stage 3, it was just the three of them duking it out in the sprint, with the closing pack just 17 seconds behind. In the other two, including the much-hyped stage to Big Bear, the sprints were contested by upwards of 20 survivors from whatever rigors the previous climbs might have imposed.

Put another way, amongst the three guys on the podium, no time gaps at all resulted from any mountaintop finishes. They distanced themselves from their pursuers--ever so slightly--but they never put a second into each other on a climb…except for the artificial construct of those bonus seconds in finish-line sprints. And as for my friend's contention that it all still hung in the balance, right up to the last climb on the last stage? Puhleeeze! All those feisty little attacks on the final stage were just farting in the wind. They were never going to work unless Rogers was struck by lightning. The hills were too small and the stage ended with a descent and a flat roll-out, just like all the others in this race. Yawn.

As another measure of the mediocrity of this racing, look at the guys on the podium, two years in a row. Hey, I know these are good, solid, journeymen racers. They have all done good things in their careers, in some cases very special things. But Levi is the only one who has ever been on the podium in a grand tour. He's been in the top ten in several. Over the last five years, Dave Z's resumé at the Tour de France adds up to one DNS, one 74th place, one 77th place, one abandon, and one DQ for being over the time limit. Mick Rogers? Two DNS's, one 10th, one 41st, and one abandon. (Granted, he was well placed when he abandoned, but still…)

They may have done great things in time trials over the years; they may have done reasonably well in some other, smaller events. But compared to Levi in a serious stage race, they are not anywhere close to being in his class. (This assumes he's at his best, and there is some question as to whether his form this year is all that sharp.) On paper at least, these guys wouldn't stand a chance against him if he were given the scope to really do his thing on a true hill stage. And yet they beat him this year and were close last year…all indications that these ToC courses are not tough enough or well-designed enough to separate the sheep from the goats.

Folks…this is bogus and it's boring. It is not good racing. Until the organizers have the guts to set up a true mountaintop finish, where significant efforts can be rewarded, you are going to have this promenade up and down the state that means essentially nothing. I take nothing away from the riders. They're riding the parcourse they've been given. They're making the best of it. There just isn't anything for them to sink their teeth into.

Much was made this year of the stage to Big Bear. Many journalists fell all over themselves in a swoon of rapture about the "first mountaintop finish in Tour of California history." The organizers may not have made that claim exactly, but they sort of hinted at it, and they allowed others to foment that misapprehension until many fans were convinced they were going to be seeing l'Alpe du Huez in the San Bernardino Mountains. It was nothing of the sort. After all the climbing was over, there was a ten-mile downhill and rollers and flats around the lake. (We did all the roads on that stage on a tour a few years back, so I know exactly what the challenge is there, and what it is not.) And the climbs, all 12,000' of them, really were not stiff enough to make a crucial selection…not with over 20 riders still in a pack at the finish. Why even bother to do all that climbing if you're just going to end up in a field sprint anyway?

To me, this has gone way beyond meaningless. To my way of thinking, it's starting to look a lot like fraud. The promotors are stringing the fans along with hints and hype and hope…teasing us all with the promise that something significant will happen out there. And nothing ever does, because nothing ever will with the stages they're giving us.

Here's the crux of the problem: the organizers count on the cities where the stages finish to fund all of the support structure for the events…police services and all the time city staff puts into traffic control and event and site management. The various cities have decided that it's good for business to support the event and bring the stages to their communities for all the obvious reasons. (Read my column from last month about the financial benefits of such events.) So they foot the bill, and a substantial bill it is. If they didn't pick up the tab on all that prep and support work, who would? The organizers? Not if they can help it!

So where are all our mountaintop finishes in California? We have loads of awesome climbs, but most of them end in very remote, uninhabited places. Unlike Europe, we don't have too many towns built on the tops of our mountains. We do have a few ski resorts and maybe an observatory or three, but that's about it. Most of our best hilltop finishes would be out in the middle of nowhere. So who would pick up the tab for a finish out there? Where would you put your merchandizing bike expo that usually goes with the finish? It would be a huge and expensive proposition, with no likely sugar daddy to foot the bill.

Even without a suitably large and busy city or resort on the summit, race organizers in Europe are willing and ready and able to put finishes on the tops of mountains in the middle of nowhere. Look at Mt Ventoux: nothing up there but a weather station. Look at the fearsome Zoncolan, featured so beautifully in this latest Giro: if you go to Google StreetView and check it out, you will see what I mean. There is not one building at the summit. Nothing. Not even a shepherd's hut. Just a lot of emptiness. And yet on the day of that stage, it looked like a city up there, with all the portable buildings they brought in. Who paid for all that? Not the locals. There are no locals!

Clearly, AEG, the promoters of the Tour of California are not yet willing to go out on that limb. Their own financial self-interest dictates that they fob those costs off on whatever towns want the stage finishes badly enough to pay for them.

Perhaps the answer is to find a single, corporate sponsor who is willing to pay the bills so that they can plaster their name all over some remote mountaintop site, like Mt Hamilton or Mt Diablo or Whitney Portal. But unless and until someone steps up to the plate and shows us the money, it ain't gonna happen. And the result will be more races with meaningless finishes. Mickey Mouse.

If you think this sounds like a rant, you're right. I'm fed up with the Tour of California as it is presently organized. We've been all excited for five years now about having the best racers in the world in our own backyard (most of them anyway). But even the best racers, with all the best motivation in the world, cannot make something out of nothing, and nothing is what they're being given right now. In my review of the first ToC (which was generally very favorable), I noted this problem and predicted that sooner or later the public was going to wise up to the fact that there wasn't anything really substantive going on out there. I may have been wrong about that. I'm still waiting for race fans to wake up to the fact that they're being taken for a ride.

It's unfair and unrealistic to think that an 8-stage tour should match up favorably with one of the 21-stage grand tours; with all the tradition and challenge and financial wherewithal of the bigger event. But it isn't unfair to suggest that the new kid on the block, if he ever wants to be more than a poser, needs to offer us something that really matters…something that can produce real drama and real results.

Right now, watching the Tour of California is about as satisfying as eating cotton candy. Not much there…

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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