Spheres of Influence

There’s a new player in the fantasy cycling realm…Test your Tour de France director sportif acumen at FantasyCycling.com and maybe walk away with a Ridley frameset. Or at least see if you’ve got more insider uber-knowledge than yours truly, fielding the eponymously monikered “Bobke Strut” squadra. Full disclosure: the people running this new cycling retail business/fantasy cycling league are friends and good people, and I provided consultation services regarding the design of the game. So you don’t have to worry about me walking away with the Ridley, even if my “all sprinters, all the time” strategy proves prescient. I’m ineligible and only playing for personal gloating privileges. You’ve got until 12:00am EST, July 1 to register…

I’ve also had my byline published for the first time on a site other than one I run. Check out my profile of the Raleigh, NC-based elite women’s BMW-Bianchi team over at PezCycling News. The BMW-Bianchi team are also good people and friends of mine. There’s still plenty of racing on their schedule for the 2006 season—stop by and say hello at a southeastern race destination near you. And for those of you who’ve arrived here at Bobke Strut for the first time due to reading the article, welcome.

An Army of One

Vinokourov schools everybody to win the final stage of the 2005 TdF
Graham Watson photo

Come hell or high water, Alexandre Vinokourov will be rolling out of the TdF prologue start house this Saturday. And he won’t care if he’s the only man left on the Astana-Wurth roster legally able to compete in le Tour. In fact, he prefers to race that way. It’s not like he’s had any help from teammates in previous editions of the TdF.

It’s really a rather straightforward proposition: when the prime minister of Kazakhstan is #1 on your speed dial, when the prime minister of Kazakhstan is also the head of the cycling federation, when the prime minister of Kazakhstan counts certain “oil moguls” amongst his innermost circle of influence, when said Kazakh “oil moguls” bankroll the national sporting hero of Kazakhstan, there really isn’t too much to debate about whether Vino will race in France this year. I guarantee Christian Prudhomme has received a phone call or two from the steppes of Kazakhstan which has made his heart skip a beat. The team will likely only be dubbed “Astana” by Saturday, but no matter.

Here’s a peak into the inner workings of Vinokourov, facts that you may not be aware of:

1. How many Kazakhs does it take to fill out a ProTour roster?
AV: To answer said query: just one, if your name is Alexandre Vinokourov.

2. Don’t you need at least one teammate?
AV: I concede victory to your point. The victories in France, they shall flow freely like the crude of Kazakhstan. You’re right, count Andrey Kashechkin in too, Vino knows not the semantic means to gift stage wins to yourself having grown bored of victory itself. Besides, somebody will have to fetch my bidons. And bring honor to his mighty Kazakh national champion jersey already gifted his direction.

3. But aren’t there rules about a minimum roster size?
AV: There is only one rule…When Kazakh ‘oil moguls’ say jump, the ASO says “How high?” Vino laughs at your rules.

4. Aren’t you afraid of getting caught up on the Spanish Operación Puerto affair?
AV: Hear my words, Alexandre Vinokourov takes nothing of the drugs. Or blood. Or hormones. In fact, I give you exclusive tip. DNA testing will show that all of the blood on ice, all of the hormones in refrigerator, it is all mine. I am so pure, so powerful, so mighty, that the European peloton dopes from my body. Tyler? His gold medal is awash with my blood. The blood of Vino flows through Jan Ullrich. The Spanish peloton? My all-natural, 49.99999999% hematocrit Kazakh blood powers them all. I am quite literally, a cycling machine.

5. Do you know who blew the whistle on the lab’s program?
AV: That would be Vino. So much the the blood, hormone, testosterone delivery program. I grew weary. Right now there is one speed in the peloton: the speed of Vinokourov. Everyone rides the fuel, the essence of Vinokourov. We need two speeds again, the speed of Vino and the slow speed of those not of Kazakhstan.

6. I just read a Samuel Abt article which stated you’re a part of the Kazakh military? Any comment?
AV: I am Major in the Kazakh army. Indeed, I am the Kazakh army. When Kazakhstan deploys its fighting force, it sends forth Alexandre Vinokourov alone to conquer. Vino is being sent forthwith to conquer France. And all holders of ProTour license.

Insane in the Membrane

Photographer: Gerry McManus (URL)

Methinks the UCI has a roque Captain Queeg at the helm. Patrick McQuaid must be awash in Guinness, spewing forth drunken edicts from Switzerland to national federations, as the UCI and professional cycling as we know it spectacularly immolates in public on his watch. Or maybe it’s just that June 25th is the equivalent of April Fool’s Day in Great Britain. There is just no other earthly explanation for this statement (and above photo) from cyclingnews’s report concerning this past Sunday’s British National Championship Road Race:

“One a small end note, when the riders went to sign on for the race they were faced with a ban on overshoes and oversocks. The race organisers had received an official request from British Cycling to issue the instruction as the UCI had introduced a ban that morning.”

I can’t find any mention of this decision anywhere else but that particular article. I’m having flashbacks to the days of yore in the US when crazy clothing restrictions were the rule of the day. I actually remember some poor sap getting DQed from a podium position because his socks weren’t white. Of course, what prompted this outrageous miscarriage of justice was the incessant belligerence of your classic little league parent my father and I dubbed “The Screamer”. It never failed that post-race in upstate New York, any weekend of the year when “The Screamer” and his son showed up at a race, a violent confrontation would take place between “The Screamer” and the officials on duty. Since his son didn’t quite have what it took to win races on his own, “The Screamer” would invoke the rulebook afterwards. Loudly. Hence, the hapless schmoe relegated for violating the white sock clause. And let’s not get started on the complex calculus governing the size and placement of sponsor logos on your kit.

Or maybe this is just a ploy by shoe manufacturers to take away the timeless tactic of star riders using shoes other than the team issue dregs and forever training/racing with shoe covers to hide the subterfuge.

Image source: http://www.gonzostore.com

Perhaps it is time that I run for office. Like the President of the UCI. I’m reaching the breaking point with the sport I love, just as Hunter S. Thompson was motivated to run for sheriff of Aspen as a reaction to getting his ass kicked by Chicago cops at the 1968 Democratic Convention. While I haven’t exactly been roughed up by UCI hired-goons–enough is enough, it’s time to scare the bejeesus out of the home-office in Switzerland by running on the Freak Power ticket of yesteryear.

An abundance of riches

I’m still obsessed with Italy. While recently reading a book about Venice, The City of Fallen Angels by John Berendt (of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame), I came across this passage. It’s part of a conversation Berendt was having with an Italian who had made his fortune in the rat poison business:

“My little company became part of the famous economic boom in northern Italy. Did you know that here in northern Italy we have the highest concentration of businesses in the world? It’s true: There’s one company for every eight inhabitants. They’re mostly small, family-run companies. Like mine, and like Benetton, which is run by my old friend Luciano Benetton. Luciano was born and raised in Treviso, like me, and we both have our world headquarters in Treviso”.

This got me thinking about professional cycling, and I began to wonder what parts of Italy produced riders and cycling companies. I’m sure I’ve seen the city names numerous times before, but they may well have been telling me they’re on Mars. I’ve never made a conscientious effort to actually place the city names into a map, they’ve always been some abstract concept.

So I did some checking.

Here is a map of Italy broken down into its 20 regions:

Image source: http://www.big-italy-map.co.uk/

There are 85 Italians on ProTour teams. Here are the regions which produced this assortment of world-class cycling talent:

Region # of riders
Lombardia 34
Veneto 17
Toscana 14
Liguria 4
Sicilia 4
Trentino-Alto Adige 3
Abruzzo 2
Campania 2
Emilia Romagna 1
Friuli-Venezia Giulia 1
Marche 1
Piemonte 1
Umbria 1
Basilicata 0
Calabria 0
Lazio 0
Molise 0
Puglia 0
Sardegna 0
Valle D’Aosta 0

It’s pretty amazing, 65 of 85 ProTour Italians came from three northern regions. And if you include the 186 Italians riding for what was formerly known as Div II squads the breakdown basically remains the same.

And then look where the all the cycling companies are located which produce the goodies which continuously drain our wallets:

Lombardia: Bianchi, Carrera, Castelli, Cinelli, Ciocc, Colnago, De Rosa, Guerciotti, Santini, Stella Azzura, Vittoria.

Veneto: Campagnolo, Elite, Fondriest, Gaerne, ITM, Nalini, Pinarello, Scapin, Selle Italia, Selle Royal, Selle San Marco, Sidi, Wilier.

Liguria: Olmo.

Piemonte: Briko, TTT.

Toscana: Viner.

Trentino-Alto Adige: Moser.

And here are a few more fun facts about the industrial productivity of northern Italy: (1) 94 percent of the total amount of the Italian enterprises (more than 4 million) have less than ten employees; and (2) Lombardia as a region has the highest GDP of any region in the EU.

Last year, based on the UCI ProTour rankings, Italy as a nation destroyed the rest of the world in accumulating ProTour points. Two nations had more riders (Spain with 103 and France with 98) but they weren’t nearly as productive. France is particularly weak, considering how many ProTour riders they have. It seems that they produce the pack filler of the European peloton.

Now, I know absolutely nothing about soccer, but I’d be curious to see a breakdown of where in Italy their players come from who play at a world-class level. Is there an (un)balance similar to cycling, or is there a more equal spread nation-wide? One of the appeals of the World Cup on a sporting level is that there’s really nothing technology-driven about it and pretty much any nation could potentially produce talent.

History Lesson

06.16.2006. Nature Valley Grand Prix: Minneapolis Downtown Classic
The CliffsNotes version…A 60 minute crit shortened to 17 minutes by officials due to exceedingly inclement weather. Let’s see what cyclingnews.com had to say about it:

…Then the rain began to fall harder. Twelve minutes in, Jelly Belly’s Andrew Bajadali attacked with Fraser on his wheel, but it was quickly pulled back. Sensing the urgency as the weather began to worsen - with lightning directly above the course - Van Ulden then attacked and got a 5-second gap, which grew as he came around for a second solo lap.

By the next lap, though, Van Ulden was nowhere at the front as his back wheel succumbed to the rain slickened course.

“You could see his back tire just bouncing out of the corners,” Tilford said.

As they came around for the next lap, officials decided the weather was too much and rang the bell for last lap, much to the delight of many of the riders, including O’Neill who raised his hand to show one to the peloton and shook his head in agreement.

That is when Tilford saw his opportunity. A veteran bike racer a background in mountain biking and cyclocross, he attacked into the first corner and held it straight through. His lead was enough that 150 meters from the line, he sat up and began celebrating, with Henderson and Fraser cruising in behind for the bonus seconds.

Tilford said it wasn’t a calculated risk that he took, just a chance for the win. “You just don’t want to let everybody come up on the back of you,” he said, crediting both his skill and his tires for the win. “If I’m riding good, in the rain I can ride with anyone.”

Now, for a different take on things, is Jackson Stewart:

…There was a little crash about 15 minutes in which took out a few health net riders and we eased up a bit just out of respect. The next thing I know, as I am sitting in the top 5 and just passing the announcers booth, something is announced. I did hear it as we had already passed the booth but, all of a sudden some guy comes blazing really hot into the first turn, chops everyone, and everyone hits the breaks[sic] as he looked really uncomfortable in the turn. He got a good gap. A turn later I hear on the radio “this might be the last lap, it probably is”. Health net must not have got radioed yet as they were still just tempoing and probably preferred this random guy in red off the front so he wouldn’t chop them in the turns anymore. It was just passed probably 1/2 to go that Healthnet actually responded and realized it was one lap to go. The random dude held it to the line for the win.

This dude didn’t just win a bike race, he really rubbed it in with his celebration as he finished. From what I could see and others from the sidelines tell me, he was waving his hands all over the place and pointing back at the field as if he was Tom Boonen and just took 7 bike lengths out of a world class field and they all sucked. I guess the dude must of beenback far enough in the group to where he could actually hear the annoucer say it was one to go as he passed the start finish.

I still can’t get over the celebration this guy put on as he won a 20 minute criterium, it was crazy, maybe it was his first win? Who knows.

Now, I’d bet that at age 46 Steve Tilford is likely the oldest guy to win an NRC race. Tilford won his first elite national title in 1983 when Jackson Stewart was 3 years old and has likely won NRC caliber races every year that Jackson Stewart has been alive.

Welcome to the new home of Bobke Strut…

Congratulations! You found the new home of Bobke Strut before I even told anybody about it. Please bear with me as I figure out how Wordpress works. This is a work in progress for the moment. I promise to be up and running shortly with a look (hopefully) somewhat familiar to those familiar with the previous rendition http://www.unc.edu/~hymas/blogger.html

Thanks for reading!

Italy…The Final Word

Fact: If you want to wander around Italy and never be identified as an American by mere looks, grow some Elvis-esque sideburns. Evidently, a substantial set of lamb chops is routinely associated with the English. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that at multiple periods of my life I’ve been told “You have the map of Ireland on your face” which likely cements my Anglo/Irish identity and yields no clues about America until I open my mouth. It worked like a charm during my six month stint in Ireland way back when. Just check out the similar mugs of myself and AG2R’s lone Irishman, Mark Scanlon. Generations of fair-skinned, Irish pastiness are flowing unchecked and unabashed throughout our respective DNA structures. And what really throws people for a loop is when you bust out the La Gazzetta dello Sport to check out the daily 6+ pages of Giro d’Italia coverage.

Brace yourself: Italians don’t care too much about cycling. I know, words of such blasphemous magnitude have rarely been rendered here in print. I thought I was embarking on a magical voyage to a cycling Nirvanna, where each and every citizen is versed in the history, intricacies, and minutia of professional cycling. (That must be Belgium.) When we met my wife’s boss’s significant other (and family) native to Pescara, there were words of sheer astonishment about us driving to the summit of Passo Lanciano. “These Americans aren’t just idle spectators, they’re fanatics!” Pick up any edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport and it isn’t difficult to see what sport is king: calcio (or as we say here across the pond in the U.S. — “soccer”). If the trademark pink paper contains about 40 pages, then the first 30 or so pages deal with soccer. Amazing. Then comes Formula 1, fueled by the Schumacher/Ferrari firestorm. Then comes MotoGP motorcycle racing. I quickly became acquainted with young Italian phenom, Yamaha-sponsored Valentino Rossi. Still, tucked away near the back of a typical issue, the Giro garnered about 6 pages of coverage per day, which are about 6 more pages than American papers devote to the entire Giro d’Italia. There were multiple feature length articles dissecting the previous day’s stage, brief spotlights on one particular rider each day (usually someone out of the limelight), historical articles about Giro stages of yesteryear which traversed similar routes to the previous day’s stage, lots of photos (I was partial to the photo-essay sequence of shots dissecting finishing sprints or crashes, complete with superimposed arrows and running commentary to explain frame by frame just how Axel Merckx got schooled oh-so close to the finish line or the magic moment when Manuele Mori’s face made contact with a guardrail), daily commentary penned by Mario Cipollini, plus oodles of more cut-and-dried statistics which amass after each stage. Each day you could see each and every rider’s finishing order and GC position, find out daily and cumulative points accumulations for all the well-known and downright bewildering assortment of jersey and team competitions, and be provided with an entire start-list (complete with slash marks through riders’ names who have retired).

A little bit of Italian goes a long way to foster confusion…
This is how a typical conversation went while in Capri/Naples/Ercolano during our first week in Italy when we tried to ask random people involved in the tourist trade what was taking place in the Giro:

Me: Who won the Giro stage yesterday?
Befuddled Italian: ????????
Me: You know, the Giro?
B.I.: Giro???
Me: Yeah, the Giro d’Italia…
B.I.: (internally to himself, “Why is this Yank so insistent on talking about his tour of Italia? He’s mad…)
Me: (internally, “Oh shit, giro and Italia are magic words to Anglo cycling tifosi, but just benign words in Italian. I need to throw in something about cycling”)
Me: Giro d’Italia? Ciclismo? Petacchi? Di Luca? Savoldelli? Maglia rosa?
B.I.: Oh, si, si, si! The Giro d’Italia…Huh…You mean it already started?…What?…In Belgium????
B.I.: I prefer _______ (insert Formula 1, tennis, track & field, MotoGP, or soccer).

Fact: There are no sports bars in Italy. No Giro for you (in your best Soup Nazi voice) unless you’re at a home or luck into hotel rooms with televisions. While we were quizzing an employee at the tourist information office in Ercolano about the best venue nearby to grab some lunch and watch the Giro, we actually were invited to his home to watch the entire stage. We talked for some time about American pro cyclists, his love of watching stages in the mountains, how boring flat stages could be, and since he was leaving work for the day he kindly offered to bring us back to his house. Unfortunately, our schedule was action-packed for the rest of the day but we did convince the young men working in a nearby pizzeria to tune in the pre-stage Giro coverage while we gobbled down some pizza. We were able to watch lengthy interviews with numerous Italian stars (Basso, Bettini, Di Luca, Savoldelli, Cunego, and Simoni) who were just hanging out, biding their time in the rider VIP area, prior to putting in about 5 hours in the saddle that day.

No Madonna del Ghisallo for you…6 months! Denied. We could see the general location of the legendary chapel high on the ridge line above Lake Como, but unfortunately a general transit strike throughout the Lake District (wiping out ferry and bus travel) made our destination an impossibility. See, we were on the wrong side of the lake, in Varenna on the east shore of Lake Como, with no public transportation at our disposal. We were situated only about a 10 minute ferry ride from Bellagio, and then about another 15 minutes via rented scooters from Madonna del Ghisallo, but we were stranded on the eastern shore for the day. The only day we could see the chapel. And I didn’t feel like ponying up about 100 Euro for a taxi ride. My primal need to soak up the divine ambience of pro cycling’s Mecca nearly inspired me to become a triathlete for the day. I was fully prepared to swim across Lake Como, run around Bellagio until I found a sweet bike at a café with its Italian owner lost in thought, espresso, and sun-tanning, and steal (really…it’s more like borrowing…I had every intention to return the ride to its rightful owner) that machine and ride like a mofo up to the chapel. “Ride it like you stole it” said Lance Armstrong. Yes, indeedy.