Confessions of a Cycling Fan

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This email got me thinking about my relationship to cycling as a fan and rider.

I have followed professional cycling for decades or since Greg LeMond won his first Tour de France. I have spent much of my precious time and resources as an avid fan in Italy, France, England California and Australia. When the UCI ejected Peter Sagan from the Tour de France last July, my fan heart was broken.

I never thought Lance Armstrong was clean because I saw an interview with Greg LeMond talking about getting dropped by riders who the year before were middling racers. Then he knew the drugs were winning. Lance was up among the elite riders who were winning and they were getting caught doping. My assumption was that he was better at not getting caught. So I left some room for being wrong and cheered Columbia High Road and other riders on. Besides he was a bully, that was clear without a urine sample.

Somehow I survived those wretched years when the press broke a new drug scandal every year. I remember once I was traveling in Africa and spent some time with a German couple. He was a sports writer and the German press had just made a big deal about not televising or covering the Tour de France because of the drugs. I couldn’t understand how you could just stop caring. I was still in the throes of attraction to cycling.

Now I understand. Sometimes the corruption of the officials and the lack of fair play doesn’t just knock the wind out of you, it hits you with such a punch you just don’t give a flying fig anymore. I have huge respect for Peter Sagan. His cycling skills are unparalleled today. And his attitude is super fun and eccentric. He brings excitement to the sport. Oh, and he’s won the world championship 3 years in a row. He was on track to win the green jersey again, when his crash with Mark Cavendish drew the ire of race officials. They didn’t just relegate him for that stage (like they did Mark Cavendish when he had a similar crash back in the day), but ejected him from the race. Later the UCI dropped the disqualification, as if that does anything to erase the stupidity of the first decision.

The rest of the season I followed the Australian team and their excellent videos on social media. Orica Bike Exchange’s Backstage Pass was awesome. I stopped using my NBC Gold Pass to watch races. Still I wondered if I’d go back to feeling good as a fan after a break.

Then I received this email about Peter Sagan’s Fondos in California. Nope. I have a precedence. After many years as a USC football fan, I read about the concussions, then I took my family to a home game and the pre-game videos of greatest “hits” made me sick. Haven’t watched a game since. The Olympics, well who hasn’t lost faith in the Olympics? The latest in scandals is the Russians’ systematic doping. But that has been going my whole life. See the documentary Icarus on Netflix for a refresher.

I am sad to announce my heart break was finally irrevocable. I am a former cycling fan.

Are You Ready for Tour de France 2016?

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Stage 1 of Tour de France 2014 in Yorkshire

Today is the first official day of the Tour de France (July 2). I have been following the Tour since Greg LeMond raced, although back then I could only read about it in the newspaper. The “golden years” for me was Versus coverage on the cable sports station. It was thorough. I could watch live in the morning as soon as I got up (most stages start before 5 a.m. PST), then watch again in the late afternoon as soon as I got home from work, and then watch the evening program with Bob Roll and others doing special reports. 

I know this sounds nuts. Afterall, I already knew the outcome of the race on the second and third viewing. But, as any good Kiwi can tell you, there is a lot to be learned by watching a sporting event a second or third time. Plus I find cycling and the commentary as relaxing as listening to baseball on the radio.

In 2014 I made the commitment to follow the Tour from team introductions to the finish line. While the overall experience is richer, it is actually harder to follow an entire stage in person. Television coverage continually improves too. GoPro cameras and a better satellite feed mean that you see more of the race and from a greater variety of vantage points than ever before. 

However, now I do not own a television (only a computer) and watching the Tour de France becomes more of a challenge. I thought I had it figured out because I have Xfinity Comcast internet service with the extra television package. I have not tried to use it before and, alas, I do not subscribe to NBC Sports. I did download the NBC Le Tour de France Sports Gold app on my iPad. For $29.99 I will have live access to watch the racing for this race and many others.

I am a little disappointed that I cannot review the race when it is complete via the app. This is a challenge mainly because with the summer heat I also like to ride my road bike when the Tour de France is broadcasting.

Thanks to the internet there are lots of awesome resources. Most of the teams have websites, so I watched Mark Cavendish pull on the yellow jersey at the award presentations on Team Dimension Data website. I have mentioned in this space the terrific Orica Backstage Pass videos: the Stage 1 video gives you a taste of what is in store on the Tour de France. There is also the websites of Cycling News and Velonews for in depth coverage and videos. Here is Cycling News great recap of Stage 1

Twenty more stages to go. I am ready.

Coping with Le Tour Rest Day Withdrawal with Netflix

Watch on Netflix: Rising From Ashes about Rwandan bike racing team.
Watch on Netflix: Rising From Ashes about Rwandan bike racing team.

I do not expect many of you to relate to my Tour de France withdrawals on a rest day. You have to be obsessed to find the rest day between stages 9 and 10 a trial. I was distracted by my drive from Roseburg OR to Sacramento, still I got home at 5:30 p.m. and all I had was stage reruns on-line. I wish I had known about the clutch of cycling movies on Netflix. Bicycling magazine just tweeted these five titles.

A couple of them I have watched on Air New Zealand: Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist and Stop at Nothing: the Lance Armstrong Story. They are both intense films that give you a window to the passions that drive a world-class cyclist. Any film about Lance makes me angry. So how do you cleanse?

30 for 30: Slaying the Badger is a documentary focused on Greg LeMond. He is one of my heroes and this focuses on Greg’s relationship with Bernard Hinault (the Badger).  One of the other films I have yet to watch: Clean Spirit. I have yet to watch it and the description reminds me of my favorite cycling film, Chasing Legends. Clean Spirit is about the Argos-Shimano (now Giant) team in 2014 Tour de France season and includes Marcel Kittel. Rwandan cycling team

The final film is the most inspiring cycling film yet made: Rising From Ashes. I first learned about this documentary about the Rwandan cycling program after the genocide at Storylines Conference. I ordered the DVD and watched it many times even though my copy skipped. It was my first choice for viewing today. Parts are difficult to look at especially because it is real; however, it is overwhelmingly uplifting. Everyone should watch this film! Plus watching people ride on homemade wooden bikes will make you hug your bike.

Tour de France: Making New Memories

Jens Voigt in his element: media interviews. He earned the KOM jersey in Stage 1 2014.
Jens Voigt in his element: media interviews. He earned the KOM jersey in Stage 1 2014.

This time last year I was having an absolute ball in Yorkshire with Trek Travel. This year the Tour is in Holland for the first two stages and I am watching it from California. Today in Stage 2 the wind, rain and nerves resulted in a split in the Peloton with a group of a couple dozen riders about a minute ahead of the rest of the Peloton. Crashes and pressure created a third group that fell off the back of the race for awhile. It was exciting to watch. One additional bonus was hearing Jens Voigt’s commentary scattered throughout the broadcast on NBC Sports.

When I arrived in York and met my Trek Travel tour guides I had a mental list of my cycling heroes that I definitely wanted to meet and ask to sign my California state flag. 1. Greg LeMond, 2. Jens Voigt, and 3. Fabian Cancellera.  Just 24 hours later I had all three!  And Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellara struck me as opposite personality types. Fabian seemed almost shy whereas Jens is an extreme extrovert.

Cancellara's nickname is Spartacus and his Trek bike is tricked out accordingly.
Cancellara’s nickname is Spartacus and his Trek bike is tricked out accordingly.

Whereas Jens retired, I am still following Fabian Cancellera’s career. He had a serious crash at the beginning of the season and it was uncertain if he would make the Tour team. He is definitely coming on form as he came in third in the Stage 1 Time Trial. As he started Stage 2 he said in an post-race interview that he had not been thinking about winning the yellow jersey for the 29th day in his career. I guess it is possible that it was not a conscious thought, but he is such a canny cyclist that I do not believe that he had not figured out the scenarios where he could win the yellow jersey (fastest time overall).

The Trek Team must have given him a free pass to do what he can as he was the only Trek team member to get into the breakaway group. The three great sprinters were also in the group: Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Andre Greipel. (Of the four favorite GC riders only two made it into the breakaway: Chris Froome and Alberto Contador.) If Cancellara placed third, the bonus time in the sprint would give him the yellow jersey. Tony Martin was in a similar situation and he also made the breakaway. However, there is a difference between theoretical opportunities and having the bike skills, experience and confidence to execute.

Cancellara preparing for Stage 2 in 2014
Cancellara preparing for Stage 2 in 2014

The sprint started at 500 m to the finish. It may have been too early for Mark Cavendish as he was out fast and first. The Peter Sagan broke wide and poured on the gas. Then Greipel’s huge engine kicked in and he surged forward. But who was the only rider with them at the finish? Fabian Cancellara. And he took advantage as Mark Cavendish faded to take third place and grab the yellow jersey.

I am delighted. This may be his last Tour and I am enjoying the new memories he is making!

Stage 14: Depart at Grenoble

IMG_2357IMG_2427Having VIP access at a depart is just the best. Thomson Tours delivered us to the Village where we ate a few snacks waiting for the team buses to arrive. The access to riders is phenomenal. We watched as the bikes were unloaded. Soon the cyclists rode past to sign in and then they would return to the bus until the start. There were lots of opportunities to learn more about the teams and gather a few signatures. 

IMG_2393I decided to focus on team BMC and I overheard someone from NBC Sports arrange to interview Tejay Van Garderen at about 11:20. So I cruised around taking lots of pictures and then returned to the BMC bus in plenty of time. 

I chatted with Ian the professional mechanic for BMC. He started his career as a mechanic in a bike shop in Alaska. He worked his way up to the prized full-time mechanic positions on the European bike tour. Although he will head to Utah and Colorado next with the team, he is based in Belgium. He said there is not real off season. It is a peripatetic life and not for a weak constitution. 

Ian suggested I stand near Tejay’s bike (No. 141) so I would have a better chance to ask for an autograph on my California flag. I repositioned and had a chance to speak with an NBC Sports cameraman. His life is a lot of hurry up and wait. He is pleasantly surprised how competitive the Tour is this year. He suggested I ask for Peter Stetina’s autograph. Peter is very obliging and complimented my Cali flag and even though his bio says he’s from Boulder, CO he said he is from Santa Rosa, CA. 

Soon Tejay emerged from the team bus and gave his interview. Then he was rushed by another group of journalists and they had to share an interview with him. His handler then cut it off. Tejay graciously signed my flag and then kicked off to sign in at the main departure stage. IMG_2458 IMG_2442

I moved up to the Cannondale bus because I really hoped for Peter Sagan, the green jersey’s signature. His nickname this year is the Wolverine and he has a cool wolverine on his bike (and look closely at the top of the helmet). He was the last member of the team to emerge from the bus and he fiddled with his bike for quite a few minutes and then just as he was kicking off he stopped at my unfurled flag and signed! 

I went to the line to watch the riders migrate to the start line. Vincenzo Nibali, the yellow jersey, rode directly in front of me! This is one of the many reasons cycling is such a fun sport to follow.

James in our group is living with a serious illness and continues to challenge himself. He came on this tour to be able to run a HC category climb. We dropped him at the bottom of the Col yesterday and he ran to the finish line. He had a wonderful interaction with Greg and Kathy LeMond just past the finish.

James also brought his real wolverine hat and so we have been calling him Wolverine. At home in Minnesota he wears it when he encourages marathoners from the sidelines. He has danced and shouted encouragement on the Col and then today to the racers as they headed to the finish. It was fun watching their reactions. Most smiled and laughed. James is irrepressible and a delight. 

It is our last full day as a Thomson Spectator VIP group. Tonight we will celebrate the Thomson cyclists who are still on the road as I write. We have a bag full of sponsor swag to share and some funny awards and songs. 

At the end of the stage, Nibali is still in yellow. Teejay moved up to 5th overall. 

 

 

 

 

 

Meeting Amazing People at Le Tour

I am so weary from riding in the Yorkshire Dales today. Do not underestimate the difficulty of Stage 1 and 2 in the 2014 Tour De France. I rode until my legs went from screaming at me to just laughing, as in “you’ve got to be kidding”.  The hills are steep (some 18% grades today!) and come super fast after a descent, so the winner tomorrow will be really good at shifting gears.

 I brought a California state flag and a sharpie to ask cyclists to sign. I had a short list in my head of who I really want to sign the flag. The top three were Greg Lemond, Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellera. Leaving the Leeds Arena I saw Greg Lemond astride his bike outside! My Trek Travel teammate Sandy and I asked for autographs and and her husband Brian snapped photos. The first US Tour champion, and three time winner was super gracious. It was a thrill to share with him that he is the reason I am a cycling fan.

Last night Bob Roll signed my flag (that is Sandy and Brian posing for a photo with him). Then today I met the entire Trek Racing Team. They signed including Jens and Fabian. My top 3 and the Tour has not yet started! Plus Sandy spotted Alberto Contador in the hotel and he signed. I am elated. Thanks Trek Travel.  Now I am expanding my list: Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome, Andrew Talansky.

Viewing a Tour de France Finish: Lyon, 2013

I began taking an interest in the Tour de France when Greg LeMond won his first of three Tour de France races in 1986. He was from the Sacramento area and the Sacramento Bee dedicated lots of column inches to his racing. After a few years I began watching it from morning till night–each stage several times–on Versus cable channel. In the fall of 2012, the 100th Tour de France route was announced and I realized that I had the means to see it in person. I called a friend who knows France and determined to focus on a City that offered a finish and a start and settled on Lyon. And that is how I found myself in Lyon France on July 13 to witness the finish of Stage 14.

It was thrilling! We walked a couple of kilometers towards the finish line near the Stade de Gerland (soccer stadium). We were only 1.5 hours before the expected arrival of cyclists. We spent the morning seeing historic Lyon and watched the middle of the race on television. The race route in Lyon was a challenge with one section that looked like Lombard Street in San Francisco, and several hard turns into the last kilometer.  When we left the television we knew there was a breakaway (a group of riders that rides away from the Peleton or the main group of riders), but we did not know if they would be caught. In anticipation of a possible sprint, we picked a spot at the 1 kilometer marker where sprints often get serious and began our vigil.

I learned later from some seasoned Tour followers from Canada, to see the finish near the finish you need to camp out at about 8 a.m. and wait. We missed a lot of the parade (goes by about 2 hours before the finish). The announcers spoke in French, of course. Our neighbor at the barrier spoke a little English and translated. Then we learned he was from Bulgaria and spoke only a little French as well. Still better than our limited vocabulary.

Our Bulgarian friend said that the announcer was mainly telling us to keep our arms and bags behind the barrier and other safety warnings.  Gradually the announcer became more excited and began shouting his announcements with the name “Julien Simon” repeated frequently.  The official cars stopped roaring by and we began to only see gendarmes, then photographers, then we could hear the crowd roar let us know that they were seconds away.

The breakaway was still away! The first couple of riders came on our side of the street and periously close to us. Then there were a few stragglers (still going VERY fast) including American Teejay Van Garderen of BMC.  Several minutes passed and then the crowd roar sounded again and we say the police motor bikes and suddenly, boom: the peleton led by Team Sky and the yellow jersey on Chris Froome. Wow.

I did not learn the actual winner until we got back to the hotel.  Matteo Trentin of Omega Pharma-Quickstep (Mark Cavendish’s team) won the stage.  Julien Simon was close and said in an interview that if there had been a few more turns in the course it might have been a different result. Meanwhile all of the other standings remained the same.

If you are not familiar with the classifications: Overall leader of the Tour with the lowest time wears the Yellow jersey and is currently Chris Froome with a 2’35” lead; the sprinters compete for the green jersey and because there are points along the route and not just for top finishing, Peter Sagan is in green; the King of the Mountains wears red polkadots on a white jersey and Pierre Rolland is KofM; the best young rider, Michal Kwiatkowski of Omega Pharma-Quickstep, must be under 23 and wears white.

After the excitement of the peleton, we walked to the actual finish line to see the set up. I bought souvenirs. My son Tevis had work to do so he peeled back to the hotel. I walked back along the course and stopped for a cold Diet Coke. I relaxed at an outside table and enjoyed a interesting conversation with a couple from Britain who earn a living transporting bicycles for tour groups and follow le Tour on their motorbikes.

I was hooked and wanted more Tour, so when I got back to the hotel I figured out the options for taking the train to Givors in the morning to view the start of Stage 15.

Post Script: Velo reported in the September issue: “It was Trentin’s first win of the Tour –the fourth for OPQS, following Cav’s pair of sprint wins and Martin’s TT victory– and his first win, period, since 2008. Trentin was considering going back to university, but instead opted to race for another year; it turns out he secured a different education, this one at the Tour.’

“When you work alongside a rider like Cavendish, you learn a thing or two,” Trentin said, “I just waited patiently and unleashed my sprint with 100 (meters) to go.”