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Offseason Capsule: Can UAE Team Emirates Be Stopped?

01/15/2022 12:03
108th Tour de France 2021 - Stage 17
Tadej Pogačar | Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

It’s not just Pogačar anymore; Abu Dhabi squad loaded in nearly all phases

One little programming note, I am trying to focus on the World Tour teams about whom there is something interesting to say. I won’t get to all 18 of them, so to avoid burning out on this series before I’ve covered all the good stuff, I am eliminating a few teams from consideration.

Off the list are the heaviest heavyweights, INEOS and Quick Step, who are basically the same team every year in an overall way, if not in the names of the riders themselves. Whoever is the hottest young rider, INEOS have probably bought him and will line up a glittering program of races for him where, with luck and determination, he can move up to the team’s fourth option. Quick Step will be favorites at the Classics, then maybe look interesting in the grand tours, only to end up stage hunting. Both teams will rack up impressive win totals. And literally nobody reading this needs help with these narratives,

Next are teams whose position in the pecking order may be subject to change, but their roster is not. Two teams from the Western Asia land mass — Bahrain Victorious and Israel Premier Tech — fit this description as inherently interesting but with few transfers that stand to alter what we just saw of them in 2021. Same with the French teams AG2R and Groupama-FDJ.

Anyway, UAE Team Emirates! Not exactly from the muddled middle anymore, the boys in white boast the world’s top rider, who is apparently its top paid rider as well, and who ranked #2 in team budget last year, based on the limited info we have in the public domain. A total success story, all because of one signing. But it wasn’t long ago they called the muddled middle their home, and for quite a while.

Giro d’Italia stage 7Photo by Lars Ronbog/FrontzoneSport via Getty Images
Cunego and Simoni

The history of Team UAE goes back a long way to 1999 under the Lampre sponsorship, though the current management traces its roots to the original team’s merger with the Saeco team in 2005. This was the squad of Simoni and Cunego, of Ballan and Petacchi and Scarponi. For years it was the project of former world champion Giuseppe Saronni, though he stepped down to an advisory role in maybe 2014 and Jotxean Fernandez is now in charge. And it was Mauro Gianetti who gets credit for the rescue of the flailing Lampre team when the UAE government took over the squad before the 2017 season. Anyway, despite the usual churn of management and sponsors, this team has been around.

But where they hadn’t been is going anywhere. By 2017, when the Emirates took over, they were firmly in the World Tour’s second division, sinking to 15th in points and 27th in wins in 2018. But they did possess some very valuable assets… connections. Jan Polanc was already with the squad and training at home sometimes with a young Tadej Pogačar, who he says he could drop, sometimes, but not as often as you would expect of a teenager trying to keep up with a grand tour stage winner. In 2017, Pogačar was a rising talent in the U23 world, but still losing races to guys like Riabushenko and Mader. By 2018… not so much.

Cycling World Championship In PortugalPhoto by Tim De Waele/Getty Images
Freire pips Hauptman for the World Title

Pogačar was coached then by Andrej Hauptman, a former Lampre rider who was working with young Slovenian cyclists back home, including a former ski jumper who showed some promise. Hauptman is the one Polanc credits for UAE being able to sign Pogačar, which occurred in the 2018 season right before the kid went on to take his first eye-opening victory, his thrashing victory at the 2018 Tour de l’Avenir. Right then, UAE knew they had something. They added Hauptman to the team staff, got the kid ready for 2019 where he immediately began winning at the World Tour level, and the rest is history, as they say. UAE signed Pogačar to one contract extension, through 2023, then another one this summer, all of six years at €6m per season, the sport’s top salary.

The impact to the team has been every bit as immense as you might think. After bottoming out in 2018, they bounced right back up to fifth overall in 2019 (FSA DS rankings; 6th at CQRanking), buoyed by Pogačar’s eight wins and a glittering season from Fernando Gaviria. They’ve been #3 overall since Pogs took sole ownership of the Tour de France.

3rd UAE Tour 2021 - Stage 7Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Racing on home soil at the UAE Tour

No one man is an island, they say, and that is as true in cycling as in life, but Pogačar’s impact on the team has a singular nature to it. Sure, UAE had resources to sign other riders, but for a sponsor like the Emirates without the kind of connection back home that would make their constituents, say, pore over course changes to the E3 Prijs, it is especially meaningful for the team that they have hit upon a Tour ace. Buzz is currency in a sport that relies on sponsorship money rather than selling tickets and beer, and the yellow jersey coming to the desert will keep those dirhams flowing back to Europe. [I looked up dirhams.]

The buzz and the money have now allowed UAE to build a true juggernaut. They are signing prime young talents, particularly climbers, attracted to riding for the King. They swooped in when Marc Hirschi became suddenly available after his contract dispute. They’ve completely terminated even the faintest hopes of the other big teams that they might be able to whisk the Slovenian superstar away from the desert outfit.

This is the story of a team from the muddled middle, who escaped that status in the quickest, most glorious way possible. This is who Bora and Trek and Astana would like to be if they ever win the talent lottery like UAE did.

108th Tour de France 2021 - Stage 21Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Pogačar and Hirschi

What We Thought and Got Last Year

This might be a question of who “we” is here. I don’t know about you, maybe you saw Pogačar’s continued rise coming, but coming into 2021 I was ready to pump the brakes on Pogačar’s success, if just a little. Yes, he had been outstanding, but 2020 was like no other year — the Tour de France which shot him to stardom ended on September 19, for example. Also, while I certainly wasn’t betting against him defending his title, his first one came with few legitimate contenders. Was he better than his countryman Roglič? Sure, and that was amazing, but the rest of the top five were Richie Porte, Mikel Landa and Enric Mas, riders with no history in yellow. Most glaringly omitted was the defending Tour winner Egan Bernal, himself a shining comet across the sport’s landscape under the more typical circumstances of 2019, apart from the odd mudslide. If your wins are measured by who you beat, and they surely are, then there were still some blanks to fill out on Pogs.

On the other hand, I was all set to anoint them the team of the year for grabbing Marc Hirschi from Team Sunweb, after the young Swiss star had carried my FSA DS team to respectability, notwithstanding the weird management culture around the team and the paltry salary they paid him, which he supposedly multiplied by a factor of 14 with his move to UAE. Operations in the offseason to his hip and wisdom teeth delayed Hirschi’s season enough to put a damper on his entire year. But the talent and results date back several seasons now, so it would be unwise to overreact to his 2021 results.

81st Skoda-Tour De Luxembourg 2021 - Stage 2Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images
HIrschi wins in Luxembourg

Of course, what really had us — and I think I can be inclusive here — drooling was the prospect of Hirschi teaming up with Diego Ulissi to take over the hilly classics. Ulissi has been a steady point scorer for a while but could use someone to share the load and make teams pay the price for ganging up on him. They didn’t really deliver on that promise, but it’s absolutely still there.

Anyway, they were one of the best teams, which is what we would have thought, if maybe not quite for the precise reasons we would have identified.

FSA Directeur Sportif Rankings

As mentioned, they were third overall as a team. Pogačar was #1, of course, but it’s notable that Matteo Trentin was 15th and Ulissi 42. Three of the top 50 is a nice number. Three more (Covi, Kristoff and Hirschi) in the top 75 is nice depth.

107th Liege - Bastogne - Liege 2021 - Men’s ElitePhoto by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images
Liege-Bastogne-Liege

Top Three Highlights

  1. Pogačar crushes everyone on stage 8 of the Tour. He had already won the time trial on stage 5, and at that point it was clear that Pogačar was going to be nigh well impossible to stop. But this makes for a better highlight, given that he took fourth on the stage behind three break dudes; it was the opener in the Alps; Roglič was clearly too injured to be a factor; and every other potential rival lost major time. The Tour ended before the first rest day. Youngest Patron ever?
  2. Sigh… Liege-Bastogne-Liege? Or the day Pogačar signed his new contract? Either one of those is a harbinger of future, sustained, potentially massive success. In the moment, it was an exhilarating win, days after the team had to forego La Fleche Wallonne due to a COVID outbreak. Even better, it featured Pogačar outsprinting Julian Alaphilippe, in a sort of “anything you can do, I can do better” moment.
  3. Hirschi breaks through at Tour de Luxembourg? Or maybe you prefer Gaviria taking a sprint in the Tour de Pologne. Both were the first wins of the year for two guys whom UAE will want to count on heavily going forward. Not that Gaviria is a top-end sprinter, but he’s in the mix and will pad their numbers when he can. Hirschi just needed a little redemption after his odd season.

Bottom Three Lowlights

  1. The La Fleche withdrawal. Ulissi gave a positive COVID test the night before, and the team had to abandon what looked like a possible 1-2 between defending winner Hirschi and Pogačar (although Hirschi had said he wasn’t at his very best, so…). Yep, so sad. They had to wait four more days before their next major victory.
  2. The missed chances? There weren’t many, though Pogačar watching Carapaz saunter away for Olympic gold counts, as does Ullissi trying vainly to bag a Giro stage, only to get outfoxed on consecutive stages in the final days.
  3. Trentin’s inattentive wheel touch in the Veneto Classic. The wily classics man had Samuele Battistella all to himself in a two-man finale, but a moment’s carelessness saw Trentin hit the deck and lose his chance at the victory, ending up 18th. This came four days after losing a sprint in the Giro del Veneto to Xandro Meurisse. Not his week, despite lots of home support from the nearby (where else?) Trentino.
105th Gran Piemonte 2021Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Trentin misses out

Comings and Goings

UAE shipped off a bunch of guys to Astana — same agent? package deal? — in Riabushenko, Dombrowski, Conti and de la Cruz. Kristoff and Bystrom left for Wanty. Marco Marcato finally retired, four years after I assumed this had happened.

Incoming are some huge reinforcements, as if Pogačar needed them, in potential grand tour winner Joao Almeida and top lieutenants George Bennett and Marc Soler. Pascal Ackermann comes in to serve as the top sprinter, along with Alvaro Hodeg. Then finally there are all the young talents: classics men Joel Suter and Alexis Brunel, climbers Finn Fischer-Black and Juan Ayuso, and I guess another sprinter in Felix Gross?

81st Skoda-Tour De Luxembourg 2021 - Stage 5Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images
Hirschi and Almeida

So Now What?

Things almost certainly get better. It may take a year or two for everything to fall into place, particularly since Trentin and Ulissi are of an age where maybe they can’t keep delivering the way they have. It’s possible UAE don’t light the World Tour on fire in 2022, but within a year or two they should be pushing for the #1 ranking in the sport. They were hot on the heels of INEOS this past season for #2, and while Quick Step were another cut above, the guess here is that they can’t pull that off in 2022, not when they padded their numbers with wins from Cavendish and the recently-rehomed Almeida. Quick Step didn’t do much to reload either. The pack is hot on their heels.

35th Deutschland Tour 2021 - Stage 1Photo by Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Getty Images
Ackermann

Ackermann should give the sprint team a huge upgrade from Kristoff and take the pressure off the other fast finishers in the biggest events. Almeida is ready to do something big this year, and both he and Pogačar will have lots of help. Hirschi is a strong bet to get back to his 2020 form. The stable of young talent, along with the incoming guys, already featured Mikkel Bjerg, Brandon McNulty, Alessandro Covi and Adres Ardila. Fisher-Black is one of the sport’s bigger young talents, with both climbing and time-trialing chops on display. Ayuso was just 18 last year when he lit up the Baby Giro. I feel like I am ranting now.

Money means a lot in the sport, as we all well know, so the fact that UAE Team Emirates can shower Pogačar with cash and still have plenty more left over to build perhaps the sport’s most exciting roster, both young and old, is nice for them and probably tough for a lot of other teams to watch. Let’s face it, if another team signed the next Pogs and suddenly escaped the muddled middle, but didn’t have the kind of cash UAE has, the vultures would be circling overhead non-stop, ready to pounce as soon as that rider began to wonder about his earning potential. So sure, winning the talent lottery can get you off the mid-table merry go round for a bit, but without top-of-the-table cash, you can’t stay off it for long. That’s the UAE Team Emirates story. And it’s not a hopeless one — find the next big star and maybe the sponsor cash will turn up too. But it’s a high wire act, and UAE’s template may prove very hard for others to duplicate. Generational riders are supposed to come along only once a generation, right?

94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 - Men Elite Road RacePhoto by Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Brandon McNulty

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Offseason Capsules: Can Revamped Astana Get Going Again?

01/14/2022 12:02
Samuele Battistella Wins The First Edition Of Veneto Classic
Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Is large turnover more turmoil or a fresh start?

Seizing on my newly rediscovered motivation to blast out Offseason Capsules — you can blame my cratering interest in the Boston Celtics for clearing my calendar — I am going to keep moving through the sport’s middle class, stopping off today at Team Astana Qazaqstan.

The people of Kazakhstan are on my mind of late, not something I have ever said before, but as Russian troops “drop by to help out with a civil unrest problem” in Almaty, it’s not a great moment for a country which hasn’t had a lot of great moments lately. So with a measure of sympathy for the people whose flag is flown at the World Tour as though the Kazakhs themselves get to enjoy the Tour de France same as us, let’s look into their team.

102nd Giro d’Italia 2019 - Stage 20Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

To be frank, Astana haven’t been fun to talk about for a while. The Astana team was born in 2007 from the ashes of Manolo Saiz’ Liberty Seguros project, which then became Astana-Wurth, with Alexandr Vinokourov as their lead rider. If this all sounds a little shaky in hindsight, believe me, it seemed shaky at the time, and Vino wasted little time confirming our suspicions by getting tossed (with his team) from the 2007 Tour for evidence of a homologous transfusion. The rest of those early years were tied mostly to Vino, and then Alberto Contador and finally Lance Armstrong, all of which was as terrible as it sounds. Being a state-sponsored team from the former Soviet Union did nothing to help, and Vino’s return as a team manager after he hung up his bike continued the image of Astana as a team to worry about. Only last summer did the team finally try to move on from Vinokourov, firing him before bringing him back, which prompted its other title sponsor Premier Tech to jump ship for Israel-StartUp Nation. From what I gather, Vino is still hanging over the team in some capacity, which includes “ominous black cloud” on the list of his functions.

Some things do change, or attempt to anyway. In place of Premier Tech, possibly a sign of their inability to recruit a second sponsor, the team is now Team Astana Qazaqstan. The spelling of Kazakhstan has been changed to a different (but still apparently official) romanized spelling. Astana is named after the capital city — literally it means “capital city” — except the city itself is now called Nur-Sultan, taking the given name or nickname of its longtime ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned the presidency in 2019 despite “winning” his previous “election” with 97% of the vote. You can fill in the blanks from there. The country is struggling to recover from decades of one-party rule, and for the current ruler Tokayev to call in Russian assistance is more than a little ominous.

So why does this team even exist? For one thing, there is no Russian team at the World Tour level, so the opening for an eastern European team is there. For another, post-Vino, Kazakhstan has put out its fair share of athletes, including current Astana leader Alexey Lutsenko, who has been scoring points for years and was recently seventh at the Tour. He too has endured a brush with infamy, being tied to a visit to Michele Ferrari with his former teammate Jakob Fuglsang, but the official word on that is that no further investigation was warranted. I guess we have to each decide how comfortable we feel about this, but if you presume innocence then Kazakh cycling looks like it’s truly a part of the conversation.

No doubt another reason why this team exists is the country’s desire to be noticed by the West. Cycling is a lot easier place to get attention than most sports — it just takes one great athlete, really, or a handful anyway. Few small sports have a bigger reach than cycling, which combines its small profile 49 weeks a year with its ability to take over the sports pages in July in like 200 countries. For a few million in sponsorship money, you can buy a lot of eyeballs. No doubt Kazakhstan, with its former Soviet Union pedigree and all that means — huge investments, legit or otherwise, in endurance sports training from a young age — plus its abundance of hills to climb, is as good a candidate to nourish cycling dreams as anyplace else from Central/Western Asia.

So that’s a long-winded way of saying, I see you there Astana, and I expect to continue seeing you. It would be maybe a more positive sign if you made a permanent break from guys like Vino, because western sports fans are always a little suspicious of athletes from the old Soviet Union, and cycling doesn’t need any more of that than it inevitably has to endure. But it’s also fair to take your riders and directeurs at face value, given the lack of doping scandals since 2014, and hope that your brand is going to serve as a beacon of stability for the Eastern Bloc.

100th Tre Valli VaresinePhoto by Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Aleksandr Vlasov

What We Thought and Got Last Year

Without the benefit of our collective thinking having been actually recorded, I would guess that we would have come into the season skeptical of their direction. In 2018, Astana had risen to the third best scoring team in cycling, but from that point forward things — especially the roster — began to disintegrate. First it was Michael Valgren, although Astana can take comfort in knowing that he hasn’t been able to duplicate his huge 2018 season for DiData/EF. The following transfer season they bid adieu to Magnus Cort Nielsen, who has been missed as Astana struggle to find a place in the sprints. Then last winter it was Miguel Angel Lopez’ turn to seek a change, heading to Movistar. Of the replacements, only Aleksandr Vlasov, coming over from Gazprom, and Alex Aranburu, from Caja Rural, delivered for the baby blues. With mainstay Fuglsang’s aging and legal issues further impacting their point total, Astana dropped to fifth in 2019, then 7th, then 13th last year.

Obviously budget restrictions are a major part of the problem. In 2021, with Vino being told to whack 30% of the payroll during the COVID stoppage, the team was forced to part ways with Lopez to save money, and almost had Vlasov wrested away with a year left on his deal. They gave up their women’s program entirely, selling their license to A.R. Money. So as the results drop off, I guess it’s a sign of the sport’s maturity to say that you get what you pay for.

FSA Directeur Sportif Ranking

Our team ranking only goes ten deep, and Astana didn’t make that. Lutsenko was their only rider in the top 80, at 51. Note: there are 18 World Tour teams, so if you are one of them, you’d probably consider it par to have a rider ranked in the top 18. So yeah, this was kind of a shitshow.

73rd Critérium du Dauphiné 2021 - Stage 7Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Top Three Highlights

  1. Lutsenko wins Dauphine ITT. Wins are currency, and this was their highest quality result of the entire season, made even sweeter by Ion Izagirre taking second.
  2. Lutsenko Seventh on GC at the Tour. I’m not going to try to convince you that he animated the race in some serious way, but hey, it’s much better than his previous best, and all but six guys would gladly trade places with him, right? His time trial performance was solidly among the best GC riders, beating guys like Geraint Thomas. Struggling to be relevant in 2021, this was a big result for the team.
  3. Movistar fires Superman Lopez. What? Not Vlasov’s fourth at the Giro? Or his third at the Tour of the Alps? I’m going with no. Vlasov raced the entire season with one foot out the door, so his progress toward bigger things must have been a bittersweet development for the team. I am sure they were professional about it, and if he’d made the podium, then absolutely that would make the list. Anyway, his “replacement” is the returning Lopez, who has past podium finishes at the Vuelta and Giro, and was close to another third in Spain after a win and third in the two biggest final-week mountain stages, before getting caught out, abandoning the race, and forcing a split from Movistar. So as far as the team’s future prospects, his return is more significant than Vlasov’s final performances.
106th Tour de France 2019 - Stage 1Photo by Jeff Pachoud-Pool/Getty Images

Bottom Three Lowlights

  1. Premier Tech departs for Israel. Supposedly they did not align their vision with the Samruk Kazyna wealth fund half of the ownership group, which sounds troubling, so they left with their sponsorship dollars for Israel Start-Up Nation, which is even more troubling. Supposedly their past troubles have come when the fund is having a bad year in the market, which basically means that Astana’s finances are going back to the roulette wheel of global macroeconomics. Great.
  2. Fuglsang crashes out of his Astana career at BeNeLux Tour. The Dane, who had been such a mainstay for the team, ended his long and fruitful (if also slightly shady) run on the ground in the Netherlands holding his shoulder.
  3. Vlasov DNFs late in Vuelta. Not that there was much at stake, but he slid out on the Lagos de Covadonga stage and had to abandon whatever place he might otherwise have had (top 20?) if his injuries hadn’t put a stop to his hopes. This was stage 18. Even worse was the fact that Fuglsang had to quit the Tour de France on its final day, feeling ill (he blamed the COVID vaccine) and needing to recover for the Olympics where he hoped to win a medal (narrator voice: he didn’t). Anyway, finishing grand tours is a good thing, so having two finishes taken away like this had to suck.
118th Paris-Roubaix 2021 - Men’s EiltePhoto by Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo/Getty Images
Gianni Moscon

Comings and Goings for 2022

The losses keep stacking up: Fraile, Aranburu, Fuglsang, Hugo Houle, both Izagirres, Merhawi Kudus, Lulu Sanchez (!), Vlasov and Matteo Sobrero.

Incoming are a lot of Italians: Moscon, both Nibali brothers, Simone Velasco, Michele Gazzoli, Leonardo Basso, and Valerie Conti. From the less cultured realms they are also bringing in Joe Dombrowsi, Andrey Zeits, Aliaksander Riabushenko, Lopez, Sebastian Henao, David de la Cruz, and they are calling up Nurbergen Nurlykhassim from the development squad.

stel

Samuele Battistella Wins The First Edition Of Veneto ClassicPhoto by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Samuele Battistella

So What Happens Next?

The team meals improve? I dunno, it’s not like they didn’t have enough Italians on staff already. For all the hype around the big names coming in, it may be the Italian they already had who makes things start looking up. Samuele Battistella finished the year off strong with a win in the Veneto Classic and a couple other nice autumn results. Asking too much? OK, well, I wouldn’t be too hopeful about Vincenzo Nibali enjoying a career renaissance at 37, but then I’d never put anything past that guy.

More likely Astana continue to try to attack the big stage races with a lineup of climbers featuring Lutsenko and Lopez, with Nibali and a host of veterans around to help. Keep an eye on young climbers Vadim Pronskiy and Harold Tejada, neither of whom is ticketed for stardom (yet) but who could be threats on a good day for a result or for some top teamwork.

Then there is Gianni Moscon. Setting aside his, um, lack of popularity, the guy has been an all-around point-scorer who Astana hopes can reanimate their classics team. By himself? He’s not riding for INEOS anymore, and it will be interesting to see if that makes all the difference. But last time we saw him he was threatening to win Paris-Roubaix, so I would bet on this investment paying some dividends.

I guess in the end Astana’s 2022 is about survival. If they can escape another budget blowup and reestablish their relevance in some area, probably the non-French grand tours, then it will probably count as a success. Barring that, they will continue to be “Vino’s team,” not a good thing from the outside, and miss Vlasov as he goes on to chase his lofty goals.


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Mythologies: Major Taylor, Henri Desgrange and a Wheelbarrow Full of Centimes

01/10/2022 0:03
Postcard depicting one of the May 1901 Major Taylor versus Edmond Jacquelin races.
Postcard depicting one of the May 1901 Major Taylor versus Edmond Jacquelin races.

Was Henri Desgrange a racist? And what are we saying about Major Taylor if we believe he was?

“Historical truth, for Menard, is not what has happened; it is what we deem to have happened.”
~ Borges, ‘Pierre Menard’

A Matter of a Race

Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor was the greatest track sprinter of his time. In 1899 he was crowned World Champion. That same year he won the American national championships, a title he successfully defended the following year. Having won his first race as an amateur in 1890 and turned professional in 1896 Taylor had taken on and got the better of all that America could throw at him, on and off the track. As a new century opened his career had reached a peak. New peaks still lay ahead of him, across the Atlantic, and in 1901 the 22-year-old Taylor set sail for Europe, where a new crop of challengers awaited.

Chief among those new challengers was 25-year-old Edmond Jacquelin, the hero of French cycling, who as well as being crowned World Champion in 1900 had also won the French national championships. He had been absent when Taylor was crowned World Champion in Montréal and Taylor had been absent when he was crowned World Champion in Paris. The inevitable question hung like a cloud over both riders: would the one have won if the other had been present?

Major Taylor on the cover of La Vie au Grand Air in November 1898 and March 1901La Vie au Grand Air / BnF
‘La Vie au Grand Air’, November 1898 and March 1901. The French had been trying to get Taylor to race in Europe for several years before he finally accepted.

On the afternoon of May 16, 1901 – Ascension Thursday, meaning many were off work that day – Taylor and Jacquelin went head-to-head across the best of three heats in the Parc des Princes. The velodrome was filled to overflowing, 20,000 spectators braving the grey skies and the cold air. Some had queued from seven in the morning. Not all because they wanted to see the race: some were there to profit by selling their place in the queue to those who did.

Ahead of the race L’Auto-Vélo ran a round-up of who the editors of some of the country’s major papers were staking their reputation on. Topping the list favouring Jacquelin was Henri Desgrange who, as well as being the editor of L’Auto-Vélo, was also in charge of the Parc des Princes. Among those agreeing with him was L’Écho de Paris’s Pierre Laffitte, the man who eight years earlier helped kick-start the women’s Hour record. Leading those cheering for Taylor was Desgrange’s great rival, Le Vélo’s Pierre Giffard. When all the votes were tallied the jury was split, six votes favouring Jacquelin, six votes for Taylor.

As well as being a race between two champions – an unofficial World Championships – this was a race between two styles of sprinting: in America, they preferred to sprint from the gun, whereas European riders favoured cat-and-mousing it before unleashing their sprint a few hundred metres from home. As well as all that, the race was also presented as being between the New World and Old Europe. Old bested New, Jacquelin beating Taylor two heats to nil, a wheel length sealing the win in the first, two lengths the gap in the second.

A re-match was too much for everyone involved to pass up, from Taylor’s European agent Robert Coquelle, through the race promoter Henri Desgrange, the two riders themselves and – not least – the thousands of fans who were willing to pay to see the two champions race again. Within days (May 19) L’Auto-Vélo announced that Jacquelin and Taylor would face off again on May 27.

It was another public holiday – Whit Monday – and the Parc was again packed with fans. This time Taylor rose to the occasion as Jacquelin wilted, four lengths the American’s margin of victory in the first heat, three the gap in the second.

Major Taylor shakes Edmond Jacquelin’s hand, May 1901Jules Beau / BnF
Taylor reached across to shake the hand of Jacquelin as they prepared for the start of the second heat of their re-match. “I worked in a bit of psychology after both of us had mounted and were strapped in”, Taylor wrote in his autobiography. “I reached over and extended my hand to Jacquelin and he took it with a great show of surprise. Under the circumstances he could not have refused to shake hands with me. I knew from the expression on his face that he was well aware of the fact that my hand-shake was a demonstration of sarcasm pure and simple. My motive was to impress on Jacquelin that I was so positive that I could defeat him again that this was going to be the last heat.”

Across the two days of racing it may have been honours even for the two champions but for the French crowd it was a shock, their hero brought to earth. Despite the French fans being crestfallen the cycling press had much to celebrate, with post-race analysis helping to drive sales. Taylor had been beaten by the cold in their first meeting, it was claimed, it being well known that he raced better on warm days than cold. Jacquelin had been defeated by his own arrogance in the second, it was suggested, an excess of faith in his own abilities leading him to forsake preparation for other pleasures. And then there were those who believed the whole thing was a sham, the results fixed in order to set up a third meeting between the two to decide the matter.

The cynics and the sceptics, they got under Desgrange’s skin. Four days after the race he spoke to them, via an editorial in L’Auto-Vélo that took up more than a third of the front page. “Since the Major Taylor–Jacquelin rematch,” Desgrange wrote, “the word ‘chiqué’ has been the order of the day. Everyone is saying it.” He went through all the reasons the result couldn’t have been a put-on: the riders’ sponsors wouldn’t have stood for it; the cycling federation was there to stop it; and the riders wouldn’t have risked it knowing they could be banned. A lot of quite familiar reasons, really. Desgrange closed by telling his readers that Taylor’s victory over Jacquelin “was disagreeable to me, as to everyone else, painful even precisely because it overturned everything I thought. I nevertheless believe the result”.

Taylor was only contracted to ride in Europe until the end of June, having arrived in March. He’d already raced in seven cities before his first race against Jacquelin. Turin hosted him between his two appearances in the Parc des Princes. The rest of his tour saw him racing on another 11 dates. There was no third meeting with Jacquelin to settle the score. There was, though, a gala dinner, organised by Desgrange and Le Vélo’s Pierre Giffard, celebrating Taylor’s triumphant tour.

Taylor’s 1901 European tourfmk (map) | ‘Bicycling World’ / SIL (report)
Taylor’s 1901 European tour saw him race on 22 dates in 16 cities: Berlin (April 8 and 11), Verviers (April 18), Roubaix (April 22), Antwerp (April 29), Bordeaux (May 3), Nantes (May 6), Orléans (May 8), Paris (May 16), Turin (May 18), Paris (May 27), Antwerp (June 1), Berlin (June 3), Copenhagen (June 5), Hanover (June 6), Leipzig (June 8), Antwerp (June 10), Toulouse (June 15), Agen (June 17), Bordeaux (June 20), Lyon (June 22), and Geneva (June 24). Robert Coquelle calculated that, overall, Taylor finished first 42 times, victories in individual heats included in that tally. ‘Bicycling World’ credited Taylor with 18 wins from 24 races. Both tallies agree on this: Taylor took three victories against each defeat.

A Matter of Race

All of that makes for a good story. But for some it’s not good enough. And so an additional element was added to the tale. An additional element that tells us Desgrange was so upset by Taylor beating Jacquelin that he paid the American star in 10-centime coins, transported away by Taylor in a wheelbarrow. It’s a story that has been told and retold in multiple cycling books.

Daniel de Visé is the most recent purveyor of this tale, telling it in his The Comeback – Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France, the Washington Post veteran drawing a parallel between the racism endured by Taylor and the travails that beset LeMond’s career:

“On American tracks, Taylor suffered grave injustices. After one victory, a white competitor lunged at Taylor and began to choke him. Rather than disqualify Taylor’s attacker, race judges determined that the two men should race again: owing to his injuries, Taylor could not. Officials routinely awarded Taylor second place in races he had clearly won.

“The hostility extended to Europe. In 1901, Taylor paired off against the reigning men’s world champion, Edmund Jacquelin, for a best-of-three sprint contest in Paris. Taylor easily won the first race and then the second. The race director punished him by paying out the entire purse of $7,500 in ten-centime pieces. Taylor had to hire a wheelbarrow to collect it.”

~ Daniel de Visé, The Comeback (2018)

Like the best cycling legends, this is a story that can change in the telling. Peter Cossins offers a mutated version of it in his Butcher, Blacksmith, Acrobat, Sweep – The Tale of the First Tour de France (US title: The First Tour de France – Sixty Cyclists and Nineteen Days of Daring on the Road to Paris). In Cossins’s colourful and inventive take on the tale Taylor was “discovered” by Robert Coquelle at the 1896 Madison Square Garden International Six Day Race at the start of his professional career and immediately turned his eyes to European competition:

“Taylor leapt at the chance to take on Europe’s best in match sprint contests that stretched to seconds rather than days.

“Taylor was initially pitted against Edmond Jacquelin, the French sprint champion who was reputed to have the fastest acceleration among all track riders. In the weeks building up to their contest, the press covered the preparation of both riders in intricate detail and marvelled at Taylor’s muscular physique. A week before the match at Desgrange’s Parc des Princes, tickets were selling on the black market for three times their advertised price. Unfortunately, on the day, the American’s relative lack of experience shone through. Surprised by Jacquelin’s phenomenal acceleration coming out of the final bend, Taylor lost by a distance. ‘If we do this all over again, the result won’t be the same,’ he promised. Ten days later, the American lived up to his word, countering Jacquelin’s burst and then outpacing the Frenchman easily at the line.

“Over the next two years Taylor had continued to compete regularly at Desgrange’s Parc des Princes, becoming the biggest draw in cycle sport. During the 1899 season, however, the pair fell out after Taylor approached Desgrange and told him his next appearance at the Parc would be his last because he had been offered more to race at the Buffalo. When Taylor returned to collect his fee, Desgrange paid for it with a sackful of 10-centime pieces, for which a carriage had to be hired to transport it to Taylor’s bank.”

~ Peter Cossins, Butcher, Blacksmith, Acrobat, Sweep (2017)

The story was popularised by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in his colourful account of the grand boucle’s history, Le Tour – A History of the Tour de France. For Wheatcroft – a veteran of The Spectator, The Sunday Telegraph, and The Daily Express – the tale enabled him to cast the Father of the Tour as an unenlightened bigot:

“[Desgrange] was neither a politically enlightened nor a very loveable man, as one episode showed. When he was running the Parc des Princes, a track event was organized pitting the French champion Edmond Jacquelin against Major Taylor, the first notable black cyclist (not that there have been many since). Taylor duly won, and Desgrange was so angered by this affront to the white race that he insulted the winner in turn by paying the large prize in 10-centime coins, so that Taylor had to take the money away in a wheelbarrow. Desgrange was bigoted, he was gifted, imperious and irascible, he was at times an obnoxious and even intolerable personage; all the same, he was one of the great Frenchmen of the twentieth century.”

~ Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Le Tour (2003)

Before Wheatcroft, the tale can be found in Les Woodland’s The Unknown Tour de France – The Many Faces of the World’s Greatest Bicycle Race. It also appeared in at least one earlier offering from the prolific cycling author, A Spoke in the Wheel – A Survival Guide to Cycling. We’ll take the earlier telling of the tale first:

“Desgrange trained first not as a journalist but as a solicitor’s clerk. Quaintly, his habit of riding to work with bare calves upset his employers, who insisted he either wear socks or leave. Desgrange, who clearly had a thing about socks, chose to go.

“I don’t know what he would have been like as a solicitor, but he made a pretty good racing cyclist, setting the first world record for the unpaced hour: 35.325 km. After that, he became a cantankerous old man. When he guaranteed Major Taylor $7,500 in a match against the French favourite, Edmund Jacquelin, Desgrange naturally hoped the Frenchman would win. When, instead, he lost, he contemptuously paid Taylor his $7,500 – a vast sum at the start of the century – in ten-centime pieces.”

~ Les Woodland, A Spoke in the Wheel (1991)

In the later telling Woodland declares his source for the story:

“It’s dangerous to use the present to judge the past, but another glimpse of Desgrange’s attitudes is revealed in his treatment of the first black world champion, Major Taylor. Desgrange attracted 30,000 to his Parc des Princes track on the edge of Paris to see the American sprint against Edmond Jacquelin, the champion of the day. The prize was $7,500, worth some twenty times as much today. The bicycle historian Peter Nye says that when Taylor beat the favourite in two straight rides, ‘his triumph was so upsetting to race director Henri Desgrange (…) that Desgrange paid Taylor in 10-centime pieces, and Taylor needed a wheelbarrow to carry his winnings away.’”

~ Les Woodland, The Unknown Tour de France (2000, updated and expanded 2009)

Peter Nye told the story in his seminal Hearts of Lions – The Story of American Bicycle Racing, which paints a broad portrait of American cycling history from the days of Mile-a-Minute Murphy through to the era of Greg LeMond:

“The climax of [Taylor’s 1901 European] tour came in Paris at the Parc des Princes Velodrome where Taylor was paired in a match race against the reigning world champion, Edmund Jacquelin, a swarthy Frenchman famous for his lightning acceleration. Some 30,000 people paid to see the two champions compete for $7,500, a figure worth thirteen times that in today’s purchasing power. Taylor had studied the Frenchman’s style, and in their first race in the best-of-three series launched his sprint off the final turn at the same time as Jacquelin. As the two men tore down the long final straight, the crowd was in a frenzy. Taylor won by four lengths.

“The second race started twenty minutes later: ‘I worked in a bit of psychology after both of us had mounted and were strapped in,’ Taylor said. ‘I reached over and extended my hand to Jacquelin and he took it with a show of surprise. Under the circumstances, he could not have refused to shake hands with me.’ Taylor wanted to show ‘Jacquelin that I was so positive that I could defeat him again that this was going to be the last heat.’

“It was. Just past the finish, Taylor pulled a small silk American flag from his waistband and waived it as the riders circled the track to the audience’s applause. His triumph was so upsetting to race director Henri Desgrange, creator of the Tour de France, that Desgrange paid Taylor in ten-centime pieces – coins like dimes – and Taylor needed a wheelbarrow to carry his winnings away.”

~ Peter Nye, Hearts of Lions (1988)

Before Nye, the story can be found in another book about America’s cycling history, American Bicycle Racing, written by James McCullagh and Dick Swann:

“[Taylor] is remembered abroad in particular for his series of sensational matches with the French champion, Edmond Jacquelin. Incidentally, win or lose, Mr. Taylor was guaranteed no less than $7,500, a figure hard to estimate in today’s inflated economy, but one which we can be assured is comfortably beyond whatever the current world sprint champion is able to command. In the end, he beat Jacquelin, two matches out of three, and so upset was Desgrange (yes, the father of the Tour de France), director of the track, that he paid Taylor in 10 centime pieces. This is indicative of the petty (and not so petty) annoyances that the man had to endure all through his life.”

~ Dick Swann and James McCullagh, American Bicycle Racing (1976)

Major Taylor holds the silver trophy he won for beating Edmond Jacquelin.Jules Beau / BnF
Major Taylor holds the silver trophy he won for beating Edmond Jacquelin. The trophy was provided by an American painter, William de Lancey-Ward, seen standing to the right of Taylor. Further right, at the edge of the frame, is Robert Coquelle, the manager of Taylor’s European tour. To the left of the image, with the beard and walking stick, is Maurice Martin, creator of the Bordeaux-Paris race, which Taylor had been a guest at a few weeks earlier. Between Martin and Taylor is Cuthbert Waddy, manager of Taylor’s French namesake Edouard Taylor.

These are not all of the places the story has appeared, they’re just the places that I am currently familiar with (minus minor books, such as Mary Wilds’s A Forgotten Champion – The Story of Major Taylor, Fastest Bicycle Racer in the World (2002) or Marlene Targ Brill’s Marshall “Major” Taylor – World Champion Bicyclist, 1899-1901 (2007), books which are of that variety of cut-and-paste biography it’s best not to think too much about.)

In terms of spread, then, this is not a story that has travelled far, not compared with other tall tales told about our sport. But it is out there.

Origins

Attempting to trace the lineage of each version of this story I contacted the various authors, where I could. Peter Cossins, he doesn’t recall where he got his version. Daniel de Visé got his version from Peter Nye’s Hearts of Lions. It’s not clear where Geoffrey Wheatcroft got his version but his bibliography includes Les Woodland’s Unknown Tour, which – as we’ve already seen – got its story from Nye. Dick Swann and James McCullagh’s source is not known.

A single source, then, is responsible for the majority of the tellings of this tale. And Nye’s source? He told me that he got it from an article on Desgrange written by the veteran Miroir des Sports journalist Roger Bastide, a translated version of which was included in a now-forgotten book published in the UK.

So far I’ve drawn a blank on finding the Bastide article. Or any telling of this story before him.

Trust But Verify

When Peter Nye helped popularise this story in 1988 he trusted his source. A lot has changed since the 1980s. When Hearts of Lions was re-issued in an expanded and updated form in 2020 the wheelbarrow story was absent.

Hearts of Lions arrived in the same year as the first major biography of Taylor, Andrew Ritchie’s Major Taylor – The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer (later updated and reissued as Major Taylor – The Fastest Bicycle Rider In The World). Speaking to L’Équipe in 2018 Ritchie recalled the effort involved in writing that book:

“I first came upon his name in 1975, but there was no internet in those days. I researched Major Taylor for about 10 years in libraries and recorded interviews with his daughter, Sydney Taylor Brown, who lived to 100 years old. But it was in Paris that I discovered the impressive amount of press coverage and could reconstruct the chronology and understand his career.”

The papers and magazines that Ritchie had to go to Paris in order to access – Le Vélo, L’Auto, La Vie au Grand Air – they’re a click away today. Checking the detail of a story against contemporary sources, it’s not the onerous task it was thirty years ago. We also have a larger canon of cycling books to refer to. And they’re worth referring to not just for what they tell us, but also for the things they don’t tell.

Ritchie’s biography of Taylor does not contain the wheelbarrow story. None of the major biographies of the man that have arrived since contain the wheelbarrow story. Not Todd Balf’s Major – A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World’s Fastest Human Being (2009). Not Conrad and Terry Kerber’s Major Taylor – The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame (2014). Not Michael Kranish’s The World’s Fastest Man – The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero (2019). Nor does the story appear in Taylor’s autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World – The Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success Against Great Odds (1928).

Challenging the wheelbarrow story, it’s not about saying that Peter Nye got it wrong. Personally, I think it was okay for him to rely on Roger Bastide then. But today, with so many more resources available to us, we need to be willing to challenge past versions of cycling’s history. Today, with a greater understanding of how much of cycling history is hand-me-down nonsense, there is a greater obligation upon us to challenge past versions of it, even when those past versions can be traced back to men like Roger Bastide. Maybe especially because past versions can be traced back to men like Roger Bastide.

Tom Isitt is an author who has spent a lot of time in newspaper archives researching cycling history from Desgrange’s era, for his book Riding in the Zone Rouge: The Tour of the Battlefields 1919 – Cycling’s Toughest-Ever Stage Race (2019). That experience led him to write an article for Rouleur magazine in 2017, ‘Truth and Lies’, in which he challenged some of the hand-me-down nonsense repeated in too many cycling books in recent years, most notably the falsehoods surrounding the first appearance of the Col du Tourmalet in the Tour, falsehoods that have become established fact. I asked him for his thoughts on trusting cycling journalism and the need to verify the facts:

“In the early days of bike racing journalists rarely saw much of the race, and often had little idea of what was happening, so much of their reporting was vague, speculative, and written to entertain. Which was great for the reader, good for circulation figures, but terrible for future historians looking for facts and insight. When TV arrived print journalists were unable simply to make stuff up, so the style of journalism changed to reflect that. But anything written in the pre-TV age (and quite a lot since) has to be treated with a great deal of caution from an historical perspective.

“Do modern authors of cycling history really have to verify every detail in every story? Well they should, if they claim to be historians, but they don’t because it’s just too time-consuming and therefore not cost-effective. Bear in mind that cycling history is written by cycling journalists, not historians, so they don’t necessarily have the same focus on absolute truth. Nor can they afford to spend two years researching and writing a book that may only make them £20,000. So they can’t spend months verifying the same stories a dozen other authors didn’t verify, they just repeat it. And the more it gets repeated, the more people believe it.”

Numbers

For some, the key element in this tale isn’t the wheelbarrow full of centimes. It’s the numbers. Here’s Mark Johnson in Spitting in the Soup – Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports:

“In 1901 Taylor raced in 16 European cities for $5,000, a sum 3,000 percent greater than most African Americans earned in a year. The 23-year-old killed it in Europe, winning 42 races during his tour. The highlight came when Taylor raced French world champion Edmond Jacquelin at the Parc des Princes Velodrome in Paris. Future Tour de France impresario Henri Desgrange promoted the event, and 30,000 spectators watched their French hero slug it out against the American sensation for a whopping $7,500 pot.”

~ Mark Johnson, Spitting in the Soup (2016)

Let’s look at some of those numbers.

Writing about the drawn out process of getting Major Taylor to agree to go to Europe, Robert Coquelle wrote of how he finally offered the American a contract worth 35,000 francs, with winnings, share of gate receipts and appearance fees at individual velodromes all on top of that. Taylor accepted the offer but required that the contract fee be paid in advance. Coquelle tells us he wired $7,000 to Taylor’s bank.

That’s an exchange rate of five francs to the dollar, which is rounded down, the actual rate at the time being a fixed 5.18 francs. If we stick, for convenience, with round numbers, then the $7,500 that several versions of the story say Desgrange paid to Taylor in 10-centime coins, that would have amounted to 37,500 francs. Fill a modern wheelbarrow, capable of carrying a three cubic-feet load, with neatly stacked rolls of 10-centime coins and you’d fit about 5,000 francs. You might get a bit more if you chucked the coins in loose, and you’d get more still if the coins were in bags. But, whichever way you fill the wheelbarrow, it’s clear that one would not be enough.

At this point you have to applaud whoever Peter Cossins got his version of the tale from (Pierre Chany’s aptly titled Fabuleuse Histoire du Cyclisme (1975) appears to report a similarly bastardised version of the story) because whoever it was they realised that you’d need a whole fleet of wheelbarrows and claimed instead that Taylor carried the coins away in a carriage. Doing the math to work that out, however, must have given Cossins’ source a real headache, that’s the kindest way to explain how they got pretty much everything else in the story so wrong.

The $7,500, I should tell you, doesn’t appear in contemporary reporting. Nor does it appear in Taylor’s autobiography. Or any of the major biographies of the man. One should probably note the similarity in the contract fee Coquelle said he paid to Taylor and the prize money the legend has it that Desgrange paid the American champion. It may be no more than a coincidence. Or it may be a case of two stories crashing together. Certainly if you look at Taylor’s autobiography this seems a likely scenario, it reporting typical purses of $500 and the largest purse Taylor discloses being $1,000, quite a ways off the legend’s $7,500.

A related number is the 30,000 spectators who are in attendance in several versions of this story. Taylor’s autobiography claims that “Upwards of thirty thousand eager, impatient bicycle race enthusiasts greeted Jacquelin and I with a storm of applause as we came out to face the starter.” But while L’Auto-Vélo didn’t give a figure for attendance at the Whit Monday race, it did say that the crowd was about as big as for the earlier Ascension Thursday meeting, which it and other papers had put at 20,000, several papers claiming that was a record for the Parc des Princes.

Parc des Princes, ParisBnF
A postcard showing the entrance to the Parc des Princes, and an advertisement showing the cost of admission to the different parts of the velodrome: five and seven francs for the main areas of the Parc, one franc, two francs, and three francs for the rest of the velodrome. Pierre Giffard’s ‘Le Vélo’ estimated the proceeds from the first race to have been 45,000 francs.

Forget the level of forethought we’re being asked to believe Desgrange had to put into this – he clearly didn’t just happen to have the thick end of 400,000 10-centime coins sitting around the place – but consider instead this: Taylor was cautious enough to demand that Coquelle paid his contract in advance, would he really be so careless as to accept anyone telling him that a wheelbarrow full of 10-centime coins added up to the equivalent of $7,500? Wouldn’t it have been easier for him to have demanded in his contract with Desgrange that, like Coquelle before him, the money would have to be wired to Taylor’s bank?

These questions, the point of them is that the numbers in this story simply don’t add up. Once you start looking at them using some of the information readily available to us today, they clang like alarm bells.

Bigotry and Racism

Desgrange was imperious and Desgrange was irascible, few who know anything about the Father of the Tour would disagree with those claims made by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Most, in fact, would add that Desgrange was arrogant and that Desgrange was capricious too. But was Desgrange a bigot, was Desgrange really so partial toward his compatriots that he was intolerant of others?

The accusations against him don’t stop at bigotry, Wheatcroft went on to more or less call the man a racist. And while he stopped short of comparing him to the Nazis, Wheatcroft did compare a Nazi to Desgrange:

“After Germany was beaten at ice hockey by a team from the satellite Czech rump state, Himmler complained that inferior races should not be given such opportunities to humiliate their betters, rather as Desgrange had felt about Major Taylor, the black cyclist.”

Such claims, when they appear in books put out by venerable publishers like Simon & Schuster, they have consequences. They get repeated online by others even less interested in checking their veracity, such as Seth Davidson, a San Francisco-based lawyer who built up something of a following in cycling circles writing about riding in the South Bay area. He told me he thought he got the story from Taylor’s autobiography, where it doesn’t appear. Wherever he got it, when he told it he managed to up the ante by having Taylor paid in pennies, as well as declaring that Desgrange was “a noted racist”:

“The greatest American bike racer of all time, and one of the greatest athletes ever, Major Taylor, was a black man. Virtually every race he ever started began and ended with racial epithets, threats of violence, and race hatred of the worst kind.

“Cycling’s hatred of black people was global. When Taylor went to Europe and destroyed the best track racers in the world on their home turf, founder of the Tour de France Henri Desgrange, a noted racist, was so incensed that he refused to pay Taylor’s prize money in banknotes and insisted that he be paid in one-centime pieces.”

~ Seth Davidson, ‘USA Cycling’s Black Eye’ (2013)

What truth is there in these claims of bigotry and racism? Gareth Cartman is someone who has spent a lot of time researching Desgrange’s era, for his novel We Rode All Day, which offered a fictionalised history of the 1919 Tour. I asked him if he thought Desgrange was a bigot:

“Take Henri Desgrange out of context and yes, by modern standards, he would be a bigot. Of his time though, he was both a progressive and a nationalist. His obsession with athleticism was born out of the 1871 siege of Paris and the perceived fecklessness of his compatriots who ‘rolled over for the Boche’.

“For examples of athletic prowess, he would cite Americans Zimmerman and Taylor, and in later years, while the Belgian riders were mopping up successive Tours, he welcomed their victories.

“While he despised Philippe Thys (Thys negotiated hard on bonus and appearance money), he applauded his physical attributes. Of Léon Scieur, winner in ‘21, he saw a ‘glorious Belgian ace’ and nicknamed him the Locomotive. Of Firmin Lambot, winner in both ‘19 and ‘22, he saw a tenacious rider who ‘judged the Tour to perfection’ – unlike for instance French rider Jean Alavoine who came into the race overweight and spent 20 minutes sleeping in a ditch on the first stage. Feckless.

“These foreign riders represented physical perfection, and this was Desgrange’s obsession, and this transcended borders – and as we’ve seen with Taylor – race.”

Perhaps the strongest evidence that Desgrange wasn’t a racist is that he was critical of racism. In 1903, when the American cycling authorities once more sought to find a way to ban Taylor and other Black riders, Desgrange wrote in L’Auto in their defence.

An April 1903 column penned by Henri Desgrange and speaking out against racismL’Auto / BnF
This Henri Desgrange penned column appeared in ‘L’Auto’ in April 1903. In early 2021 it was posted on social media by David Gunel, with the Major Taylor Association picking it up and adding a translation.

“Isn’t it saddening to think that the simple chance of birth can eliminate a man from solid competition,” he wrote, “that the Americans, when we have long been convinced that sport has no country or race, still consider themselves dishonoured by the presence beside them in races of muscles and minds as good as theirs, because doesn’t the same blood course through all veins?”

Earlier in the article Desgrange had turned the issue on its head: “If we only saw the thing through the wrong end of the spyglass, we could delight in a solution that could thrust onto the European continent several dozen emulators of Major Taylor and thereby give our races more appeal.” He closed by coming out clearly against racism: “In France our hands are outstretched to welcome a good effort wherever it comes from. We don’t distinguish between Negroes and whites, and victory appears just as impressive to us if won by a Jacquelin as by an Ellegaard or a Major Taylor.”

When Woody Headspeth arrived in France in 1903 he was welcomed in the pages of L’Auto. His American unpaced Hour record was noted and it was hoped that he would set a world record while in Paris. The unpaced Hour record, as we all know, is the one legendarily created by Desgrange himself and L’Auto could at times be a bit proprietorial about it. Ibron Germain was another rider who had to leave America because of the rules against Black riders. Like Headspeth he became a regular in track races organised by Desgrange in the Parc des Princes or, later, the Vélodrome d’Hiver. Desgrange didn’t just talk the talk, he backed his words with deeds.

Woody Hedspeth and Ibron GermainJules Beau / BnF
Woody Headspeth (l) and Ibron Germain (r) were two of the Americans who relocated to Europe. Early in their European years they joined the Mauritian rider Hippolyte Figaro (aka Vendredi), who was a veteran of Paris-Roubaix and also rode on the track. Later they were joined by the Tunisian rider Ali Neffati, a Tour de France veteran who was invited to participate in track races Desgrange organised in the Vel d’Hiv during the war.

Print the Legend

Cycling history is full of stories that aren’t true. Take the death of Arthur Linton, which started out with him dying ten years before he shared victory in the Bordeaux-Paris race and eventually morphed into him dying during the Tour. Or consider Marie Marvingt shadow-riding the 1908 Tour 15 minutes behind the men and finishing with an elapsed time that would have put her on the podium. There’s no contemporary evidence for that and the story may owe its origins to nothing more than Marvingt once noting that she’d done a tour of France on her bicycle. Or look at the biggest myth of the moment, the blessèd Gino Bartali, hero of the Holocaust. No matter that this story has been debunked by a scholar of the Shoah in Italy, with new money flowing into the sport from Israel few want to admit it’s based on a misunderstanding.

Some myths, despite having little or no truth in them, they can still speak a larger truth to us. When talking to Lynne Tolman of the Major Taylor Association about this story – she herself has sought to find the truth of it – she compared it to the legend that grew up around American servicemen returning from the Vietnam war being spat upon by anti-war protestors.

That story has been debunked by the sociology professor Jerry Lembcke, who – while acknowledging the difficulty of proving a negative, the difficulty of saying something didn’t happen – points to the lack of evidence from the time supporting the claims and the implausible elements they contain. Why then do the spitting stories persist, even making it into films like Rambo? Lembcke offers several arguments, one of which is that no one wants to question the authority of those telling them. The stories also speak to the belief that it was the anti-war protestors who caused the war in Vietnam to be lost. They’re not true but they speak to a larger truth, or at least a widely accepted belief.

Does the wheelbarrow story speak to a larger truth, other than the belief held by some that Desgrange was a bigot and a racist? Tolman thinks it does. “As with the post-Vietnam spitting stories,” she told me, “the anecdote fits a narrative that people want to tell and want to hear. While we find no evidence that the story itself is factual, it conveys a larger truth about the humiliating treatment that a Black athlete was subject to. But as you point out, it’s not quite fair to throw Desgrange under the bus.”

Acknowledging that Taylor suffered humiliating treatment because of racism is central to almost all the stories we tell about him today. But, by and large, we paint a somewhat simplified picture: we note that Taylor was treated horrifically in America because of the colour of his skin but we suggest that wherever he went in Europe he was greeted with open arms. The reality is that even in Europe Major Taylor was subjected to racism. There was the pernicious form of ‘everyday racism’, of forever being referred to by the colour of his skin – the same othering that Josephine Baker endured 30 years later even as she became the darling of Paris – but there was also the outright racism of those who wouldn’t serve Blacks. And there is evidence that, even as he was welcomed by the French, in some places Taylor was turned away. Robert Coquelle recalled an incident shortly after Taylor’s arrival in France when, just twenty-four hours after registering in one hotel, the manager ordered him to leave, crying out “No Blacks in the hotel! No Blacks!”

A Bad Sport

To guide him through a world that was set against him, Taylor relied on a moral compass. He was a Christian and respected the Sabbath, that’s why the Jacquelin races were on a Thursday and a Monday. He avoided alcohol and other intoxicants. On the track, while gamesmanship was part of his tactical armoury – look at the handshake with Jacquelin – Taylor did not approve of unsportsmanlike conduct.

There was an incident involving Jacquelin, at the end of their first head-to-head on May 16. After beating Taylor the French champion had circuited the Parc des Princes thumbing his nose, an unsporting gesture for which he was much criticised in the press and for which he apologised in the pages of L’Auto-Vélo on May 20. “I had never before suffered such humiliation as Jacquelin’s insult caused me,” Taylor wrote in his autobiography. “I was hurt to the quick by his unsportsmanlike conduct and resolved then and there that I would not return home until I had wiped out his insult.” Taylor went on to explain how Jacquelin’s insult fuelled him in the second and final heat of their re-match: “I kicked away from him – the resentment I bore towards Jacquelin for the insult he offered me serving to pace me as I had never been paced before.”

A few weeks later in another race, in Copenhagen against the Danish champion Thorvald Ellegaard, the match went to the third heat, the Dane having won the first and the American the second. As they barrelled toward the line in the decider Taylor’s rear tyre blew and he went down. “Since my feet were strapped to the pedals”, Taylor recalled in his autobiography, “I could not free myself and had to be content with raising myself on one elbow and watching the big Dane sprint like mad for the tape. The thought went through my mind at the moment that Ellegaard had displayed a very poor brand of sportsmanship under the circumstances. Right then and there a feeling sprang up between us and it continued to grow more and more bitter as time went on.”

Taylor thought that Ellegaard shouldn’t have taken advantage of his bad luck – this was decades before road racing developed similar qualms about attacking when a rival suffered a mishap – and that the final heat should have been rerun. Instead, a revenge match was arranged and a fortnight later the two again met, this time in Agen, France. “It proved to be the hardest match race that I ever competed in,” Taylor later recalled, the match again going to the third heat. “It was a grudge fight,” wrote Taylor, “and there was no friendly hand-shaking either before or after our heats on this track.” It was a close-run thing in the deciding heat but Taylor prevailed.

Taylor endured a lot in his racing career but he didn’t endure it meekly. He spoke out about the way he was treated. And he settled his scores. This was a man who had to fight for everything he won. He didn’t just have to be better than the next-best rider in America, he had to be better than all of his rivals combined for that was the way they raced against him, as a combine. Time and again the American authorities tried to stop Taylor from racing, time and again Taylor challenged their authority. This was a man with a core steeled by adversity, a core steeled by the racism he had to endure daily. This was not a man easily cowed.

And yet here we are, asked to believe that Taylor’s response to Desgrange paying him in 10-centime coins was to wheel them away in a barrow before returning to Desgrange again and again when he raced in Europe in subsequent years, perhaps most notably on Bastille Day 1903 – when the riders in the first Tour de France were on the penultimate leg of their adventure, racing between Bordeaux and Nantes – and 15,000 spectators filled the Parc des Princes to watch Taylor, Jacquelin and the Dutch national champion Harrie Meyers race for a purse of 4,000 francs.

Whatever the larger truth the wheelbarrow story tells of the racism endured by Taylor in Europe, this is a story that is unnecessarily unkind to Desgrange, who despite all his faults was progressive and doesn’t deserve to be cast as a bigot or a racist. But this story is no less unkind to Taylor too, suggesting as it does that he just meekly accepted the insult. This was a man who stood up for himself, and in so doing has left a legacy which stands up for others today. We should be wary of taking that away from him cheaply.

Major Taylor portraitJules Beau / BnF
“No one of color was able to offer me advice gained through experience as I started up the ladder to success. In a word I was a pioneer, and therefore had to blaze my own trail.”

Categories:Podium Cafe - All Posts

Bad Answers to Weird Questions: Do We Approve of Cycling’s Power Structure?

01/6/2022 12:03
CYCLING-SUI-UCI-SPORTS
Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Today in a new feature I may have just invented, it’s Bad Answers to Weird Questions! And to start off this possible (but not definite) series…my Weird Question is: are we OK with the power structure of cycling?

I can’t explain exactly how this idea occurred to me, but I do think it might have legs. Just today, Mrs. PdC brought this story to my attention, and all I could think of was, see! Lots of people are giving bad answers to weird questions! Right up to the Vicar of Christ!

As bad an answer as this is, I am 10x more intrigued by the question. And 100x more concerned about what is going on with that St. Bernard.

Anyway, this is a cycling blog, so to the extent I will be coming up with weird questions to answer badly, they will be cycling related. And today we are starting at the 35,000-foot level of the sport. It’s been a while since we just assumed the UCI was covering up for massive doping and other forms of corruption, but not so long that we can just assume it’s not the case. What are the sport’s true safeguards against turning the sport back into the debacle of the 1990s and early 2000s, which in hindsight we maybe should have just stopped watching? Here’s the quick answer.

Bad Answer: a very uncomfortable shrug and slight nod of the head.

I want to approach the answer by comparing cycling to some other familiar (to me) sports, mostly so you guys know what I am talking about so that we can at least collectively make an educated guess at an answer. I’m not enough of an insider to say that cycling is truly run by x, y or z, but there should be some circumstantial evidence around to help lead us in the right direction.

Let’s start by pulling the question apart. Who is the real center of power in a sport? You can look at this as I posed it above — the entity that can prevent the sport from driving itself into a ditch. Whether that is a regulatory authority or more of a moral center money driver, it depends. Another way to look at it is just more simply, who really calls the shots. These are two distinct questions getting toward the same point. The former sounds more interesting but may be harder to answer, so I’ll mention the latter as well. Ultimately, what the question seeks an answer to is, do we as fans think the sport looks like how we want it to? Is it as good as this great sport of cycle racing can be?

OK, for context, here are some breakdowns of other sports.

Tampa Bay Rays Vs. Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in ALDSPhoto by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Major League Baseball

The Good: Few sports see their power structure balanced as evenly between players and owners as MLB. The players’ union has done a good job of seizing power through strikes and forcing ownership out of the dark ages, then out of the dim ages, and into something of an enlightened approach to power sharing in the most recent collective bargaining agreements. Owners, meanwhile, have not exactly been pushed around, using a soft cap (and some probably collusive practices) to keep prices from going haywire, which they hate for selfish reasons but which we could fairly see as a potential threat to competitive balance too. Finally, the Commissioner’s Office is an effective one on those (increasingly rare) occasions when occupied by a competent person. Before being hijacked by a self-dealing soulless car salesman and now his hand picked successor, Baseball had commissioners who went around trying to do the right thing for the game, and crazy as it sounds, succeeding?

The Bad: The MLBPA has sold out younger players and minor leaguers for ages, as those guys practically lose money right up until making the majors, which is a bit absurd since baseball is one of those sports that requires years of skill-honing before you can debut. They were scheduled to talk about this until the recent lockout. Also, there’s a lockout, if only because owners seem to agree with what I said about things being fairly balanced, an outcome they find intolerable.

The Outcome: I guess this section assesses the sport’s overall health from a fan perspective, and baseball ranks pretty high in that regard. Few sports have looked as stupid in their handling of a doping crisis as Baseball did in the 1990s and early 2000s. If you thought Hein Verbruggen was bad, let me introduce to you Bud Selig. At least Verbruggen understood what he was doing (wait, is that worse?). But after a decade of serious punishments for steroid use, including year-long suspensions, the doping problem seems to have dropped off precipitously. The competitive balance is acceptable, with smart teams often getting the better of the rich ones. And although some people I respect can’t stand Manfred, I do think the recent experimentation with changes to speed up the game show a willingness on the part of the sport to address problems. People complain about the style of the sport, but that has more to do with on-field strategy than any sort of corrupt or immoral practices. Baseball is in good health, even if it’s supposedly not as popular as it used to be.

NFL: DEC 26 Jaguars at JetsPhoto by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The National Football League

The Good: I…

The Bad: The owners have virtually all of the power in the league, having successfully divided the union (which, to be fair, is a really tricky one to represent) and having turned the Commissioner’s Office into a national laughingstock, even before it was staffed by a national laughingstock. Even that might not be so bad if the owners weren’t generally the worst examples of the ruling class, from the merely condescending to the actual plantation-style racist douchebags. No worker safety issue is too dangerous to not be swept under the rug. No issue can be resolved until it has first been bungled in every possible way. When it comes to basic fairness, the NFL makes the Italian Justice system look like the Burger Court. All of this is possible because the sport is so exciting and the pool of unbelievably talented labor is so deep that they will never stop making absurd money. Which not only shields the owners from criticism, it actually makes them believe their insulting PR bullshit about what a great job they are doing. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s also possible because the players are largely unrecognizable individuals who can amass power and force change. Yes, the star quarterbacks are an exception there but that’s half a dozen guys in a league that employs like 1500 players, 1400 of whom could walk down the street unrecognized.

The Outcome: The NFL is basically the Roy Family, rotting internally but never having to face any repercussions. The best you can say is that the league is so popular that they can be shamed into doing the right thing at times simply because there is so much attention paid to their (seemingly endless succession of) failures. Public criticism — not any steps the NFL took willingly or that the players were able to force through — is what slowed down the rate of devastating brain injuries. How many more times can they keep falling out of trees and landing on their feet? A lot more, because even CTE didn’t stop the flow of otherworldly talent to the league. Good for them, I guess, but the NFL model would be an abject failure in probably every other sport except soccer.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles LakersPhoto by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

The National Basketball Association

The Good: I am not trying to cover every possible structure or league, just get a representative sampling, and the NBA is an interesting departure from baseball and football. The balance of power is largely with the players, who are so important that the league actually kicked out an owner for offending them — in an acutely intolerable way, but still! An owner! Unlike the NFL, the players are such unique and instantly recognizable athletes, and the best of the best are such rare gems, that the league can only survive off their labor and championships require at least two of these magical personages on hand. This gives an awful lot of power to the top players, who in turn share some of that power with the other veteran players. At the same time, the Commissioner’s Office has enough trophies that it too is seen as powerful enough to steer the sport in the right (or wrong) direction. Former Commissioner David Stern fashioned himself as an old-timey Kennesaw Mountain Landis type of authoritarian figure, which is probably OK at least in terms of establishing independence from the owners.

The Bad: Not much. The players’ union is definitely divided in two camps between the haves and the have-nots, but unlike baseball the younger guys are still making plenty of money and get standardized second contracts after just a few years, if they play well. I suppose the NBA now has something of a minor league system in the G League, which hopefully they will treat with fairness (i.e. reasonable wages). Not sure there. But even this vulnerability is heavily mitigated by the salaries guys can make overseas. If the G League doesn’t pay enough, veteran players who can’t get on an NBA roster will just do what they’ve been doing as a fallback for decades, going to Europe where they can get a real chance to shine. The owners are a bunch of rich white guys, mostly, although they tend to be a bit more benign than most sports and significant non-white ownership is for sure happening in our lifetime. So even the people with the most potential to drag the sport down are uniquely disinclined to do so.

The Outcome: The NBA is as healthy as any sport I can think of. If it were facing a major crisis, I don’t totally trust the powerful players’ union to get the response exactly right, because if they have to cater to stars over the masses, they will, and it might suck. But then again, they did just face a major crisis in COVID, and the Bubble Season was a huge success under the circumstances. Given the timing of the crisis, baseball got hit the hardest, and the short, empty stadium season, while the best they could do, was a bummer. But the NBA got slightly lucky — again, not as lucky as football, godverdomme — in that they were at the 34 mark of the season and just skipped ahead to the playoffs, sized to fit inside the bubble. Hockey did the same. It wasn’t terrible, nor was it as hopelessly irresponsible as the NFL approach of just pretending that everything would work out OK. Anyway, I digress… the NBA has a great check on stupidity in both player empowerment and in commissioner independence, which is about all you can ask for.

115th Il Lombardia 2021Photo by Sara Cavallini/Getty Images

OK, so on to Cycling…

The Good: You are not going to believe what I am about to say… I like the UCI. In theory at least. Stay with me now… yes, the UCI was responsible for the 1990s and beyond, by choosing as its president someone as nakedly corrupt as Verbruggen, who then turned a blind eye to the overwhelming existential threat of EPO until the sport was about to enter the abyss. Even then, the UCI didn’t save the day or even tug on the reins. It was mostly ASO and the French government, whose shared interest in the ever-powerful Tour de France shamed or whipped everyone into reforming their behavior. Wait, this is the “Good” section? OK, well I do think the UCI, in theory, should work as a regulatory entity. None of the above sports are half as independent of their regulatory body as the UCI is from the people who (ahem) “own” cycling. The UCI assembles and “works for” the national federations, who themselves are theoretically independent of trade teams. In theory, this is a very solid structure.

The Bad: In practice, nobody has any money except a handful of team owners, another relatively short list of sponsors, a small number of major races, and a really small number of superstar riders. So while the regulatory structure of the UCI should work pretty well, it can be captured far more cheaply than any of the commissioners’ offices in other sports. The real power ends up being where the money is. In the best of times, the sport gets lucky and the money ends up being from sources like the Tour or the broadcasters or the bike manufacturers, all of whom more or less have the sport’s best interests at heart. In the worst of times, however, it takes only a handful of unscrupulous actors to throw things off kilter, which we saw with Lance Armstrong’s influence, which grew out of the Verbruggen era, which saw teams profit off the lack of regulation by working with a handful of doping doctors to take over the sport. I wouldn’t want to blame the riders for all going along with this system, though they surely did not fight it as hard as they could have either.

CYCLING-FRA-TDF2021-STAGE11Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images

With the UCI on steadier ground, the sport’s biggest threats come from team sponsorship, which has devolved into a haves-versus-have nots system that … hasn’t ruined cycling, but isn’t doing it any favors either. Some teams like Bahrain and INEOS are largely self-funded, which is great, or would be if ALL of the World Tour teams had the same advantages, but they don’t, and what we get looks a lot like world football — the EPL, Serie A, etc. — where a few teams have massive institutional advantages and the rest succeed only by scooping up the overflow of talent from those privileged rosters. Luckily there is plenty of talent to go around, particularly in cycling, so that has blunted the impact of the imbalance for now, at most events.

Oh, and on rider health and safety issues, the riders’ union is not especially powerful, though it has had its moments where rider solidarity has forced changes. It also benefits from cameras capturing the sport’s most terrifying moments, which in turn tend to force reforms, though it would be nice to fix problems before blood gets shed. Fan opinion is almost entirely with the riders, since the teams are barely even entities, let alone the kind of historic institutions (e.g. NY Yankees, Man Utd., Dallas Cowboys) which could win fan support over the athletes themselves.

The Outcome: Cycling is in good health at the moment, but the structure of the sport is not nearly strong enough to ensure a healthy outcome over the long haul. For every success story, be it competitive balance, regulatory justice or athlete health and safety, I can point out how the sport is enjoying more good luck than institutional excellence. Teams like INEOS can’t buy every good rider, but for a few years it seemed like they could, and the fact that the last two major Italian teams are now named after Arab kingdoms is not a sign of overall health. The fact that the UCI appears to be doing its job now is partly a reaction to all of the years’ experience, quite recently, to how things look when they don’t. And of course whether they really are is something of an article of faith.

The culprit is money, in that there simply isn’t enough of it for the sport to organize itself into something which could blunt the capture of small segments of it by a Murdoch or an Emir. If there were, then there would be options. The sponsors are used to battling their rivals on the road — companies like Specialized or FSA will sponsor multiple teams and happily duke it out with their rival bike or wheel makers at the Tour every July. It could be made to work. Proposals get offered up from time to time. But ultimately — and please check me here if I’m wrong — it just seems like there are too many teams living hand to mouth who are too preoccupied with holding things together through the next budget cycle for any major changes to take place. The UCI is nicely independent but seriously limited in its authority — its battles with ASO for who really runs the sport were about as successful as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ most recent campaign — leaving the UCI in no position to advance some sort of master plan.

51st Étoile de Bessèges - Tour du Gard 2021 - Stage 2Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

And so Cycling just limps along. It has a handful of megastars who have mostly aligned with the wealthiest teams, but not all of them have done so, and the vast supply of secondary stars are spread around in a way that smells like balance. Tadej Pogacar could sign a contract for a pocket full of mumbles and still probably win the next five Tours de France. The poorer teams are just as capable of catching this young lightning in a bottle as the wealthy ones… in theory, and they sometimes do. Like baseball, you can succeed on a limited budget if you can get all Tampa Bay Rays and outsmart the wealthy teams at the talent-spotting game. But like baseball, once the wealthy teams see what you’re up to, they can regain control until you come up with the next great insight.

These are issues sometimes and will continue to be, but the only truly daunting problem for the sport is doping. For now, we enjoy a pretty strong consensus and pattern of practice in opposition to doping. The UCI isn’t off on any major misadventures, and the doping doctors don’t seem to have cracked the regulators’ codes, as far as we know. But Cycling is unique in its vulnerability here, and if eternal vigilance is necessary to protect the sport, well, this is where the lack of long-term structural stability like you see in the major US ball sport leagues is something to be nervous about. I don’t hate where things are now, but I don’t love where they might go either.


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Offseason Capsule: Trek Hopes for Bigger Splashes Will Require Luck and Patience

01/2/2022 12:02
17th Benelux Tour 2021 - Stage 1
Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Classics squad is stacked but stage race improvement may take time

With my second offseason review, I want to turn to Trek-Segafredo, the American outfit with the Italian core known best for its efforts in the northern classics, of late. I guess I am intending to hunt around the muddled middle of cycling, and based on loosely-sourced budget info from 2021, Trek are right there, or even a bit low down the list. Of late, one might wonder if they are getting bang for their buck, although when you see the bucks and compare their results to similarly situated teams on the men’s side, it’s not so bad. Then add in the work of their women’s team, and things start looking pretty positive.

Trek-Segafredo seem like they have a longer history, but they are the outgrowth of the short-lived Leopard Schleck/Cancellara vanity project that then merged with the last vestiges of the Bruyneel post-Radio Shack team. The Shack then left, and Trek bought the license, refreshed things a bit, brought on the Italian coffee mega-producers Segafredo, and have been operating under this identity ever since 2016.

74th Tour of Spain 2019 - Stage 3Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Luca Guercilena and Kiel Reijnen

General manager Luca Guercilena is the common thread that traces back to the Leopard days, and his work as a director in cycling began with Mapei and the early-aughts Quick Step teams, which explains the outfit’s knack for the Classics. Guercilena was not a pro himself, an exception in the cycling management world, but his success in the sport is very respectable. So when he announced last August that he was afflicted with lymphoma and needed to step away from the sport for an indefinite time, the sport responded with an outpouring of love and support. There have been no recent updates in the media, that I can find, so for now we just hope he is on the road to recovery.

I wouldn’t overreact and call this a new era, however; the GM role is not exactly the micromanager for every aspect of racing, and Trek will continue to rely on a large, experienced staff from around Europe, including Kim Andersen, who has been with the project since the beginning and was originally the top man before trading places with Guercilena when Team Schleck (aka Flavio Becca) sold the license. So in terms of leadership, I would say that Trek are continuing on their path, relying on continued steady challenges in the classics and hoping for some bigger breakthroughs in the mountains… and if the men don’t deliver, they are a safer bet to hit the heights on the women’s side.

118th Paris-Roubaix 2021 - Men’s EiltePhoto by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

What We Thought and Got Last Year

Like I said with Bora, we didn’t do capsules last year, but probably would have wondered where the stage race wins were going to come from. We also would have put some serious expectations on the Classics team, which continued to feature perennial favorites Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven along with a reasonable supporting cast. We might have made a snarky remark about their Tour de France hopes jumping ship with Richie Porte’s departure, as if his third overall placing in 2020 were something to bank on from year to year (it isn’t).

We got… about what you can reasonably expect? If you think all Monuments are created equally, as they most certainly do not in Stuyven’s native Belgium, then you could hail his breakthrough win at Milano-Sanremo as the redeeming win that’s barely eluded him over the last six years. Pedersen’s win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne added to the sense that this was a strong classics season, and Stuyven had to go into a deep, dark tunnel of pain to scratch out a best-ever fourth in De Ronde. From there, the wins fizzled out a bit, with one huge exception — No, not Vincenzo Nibali’s win at the Giro di Sicilia, where one wonders who would have the temerity to attack him — no, it was at the Tour de France, where Bauke Mollema continued to extend his career legacy well past expectations with a solo victory on stage 14, his first breakthrough at Le Tour since 2017. The women lifted the organization’s spirits all year, primarily through Elisa Longo Borghini and Elizabeth Deignan, who served up book-end wins at the Trofeo Binda and Paris-Roubaix with plenty of other top results in between.

So that’s what life can look like in the muddled middle, even on the lower-budgeted end of things. Pirelli are coming on board for 2022 as a major sponsor, and with the loss of Nibali plus few expensive signings for this year, they may be in position to strike it big in the next transfer market. But they have retained their cornerstones and are counting on guys trending upward for a big year in 2022.

1st Paris-Roubaix 2021 - Women’s ElitePhoto by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

FSA DS Ranking

Trek were outside the top 10 on the Podium Cafe rankings and 9th overall at the more inclusive CQRanking, meaning they were a bit better in races or race placings we don’t bother scoring. [Their women’s team were a clear second overall in both compilations.]

Stuyven ranked 19th overall, tops for TFS on the men’s side. Longo Borghini was third for the ladies.

Note: from this point forward, I am just focusing on the men’s team. I mention the women’s squad as part of the organizational overview, since Trek have prioritized their women’s racing and achieved brilliant success, which I am sure is a major point of pride for everyone there. But continuing to drill down in this post, it’s a lot cleaner to look at the men’s squad, particularly since my expertise on the women’s side is… not great.

112th Milano-Sanremo 2021Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Top Three Highlights

  1. Stuyven wins Milano Sanremo. Sometimes you don’t get the Monument you want, but rather the Monument you deserve?
  2. Mollema takes Tour stage. That was their goal from the start, stages, and they chased it day after day, finally breaking through after two weeks.
  3. Nibali leaves Trek in style at Sicilia Tour. I could have gone with more of an oncoming story in Quinn Simmons taking the Tour de Wallonie, but Nibali is an all-time cycling star and his win on home soil might be one of his last. So let’s just nod our caps to the Shark one more time.
104th Giro d’Italia 2021 - Stage 16Photo by Sara Cavallini/Getty Images

Bottom Three Lowlights

  1. Pedersen’s lost season. I guess he crashed a lot. Like all year. Hopefully it just makes him stronger.
  2. The demise of the Giro squad. It started with Nibali’s training crash in April which barely left him time to get ready for the Giro d’Italia, let alone try for the win. Then Giulio Ciccone got hot and found himself in actual contention, only to start hitting the deck himself and going home after stage 18. The malocchio was in full effect last spring.
  3. Reaching a bit, but I will say Stuyven’s worlds campaign. Not that much was expected, but the Belgian national team built itself around the fortunes of Wout Van Aert, who wasn’t on form that day, leaving one to wonder what might have been had they focused more on the chances of Leuven native Stuyven, who ended up fourth, a/k/a third in the bunch finish behind Alaphilippe.
94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 - Men U23 Road RacePhoto by Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Baroncini

Comings and Goings for 2022

Departures: Vincenzo and Antonio Nibali, Ryan Mullen, Niklas Eg. A few retirements.

Incoming: Lots of steady pros like Dario Cataldo, Tony Gallopin, Simon Pellaud, Markus Hoelgaard, and Antwan Tolhoek. As for younger riders, there are U23 world champ Filippo Baroncini, Daan Hoole and Asbjorn Hellemose, all top talents (and just maybe belying my previous comment about not making a big transfer splash for 2022).

So What Happens Next?

Things should be in a good position for 2022, although perhaps only marginally better than last year, and relying on reasonable injury luck to even match their 2021 output, let alone exceed it. The ceiling is rising with the young talent coming on board, but they might not contribute much right away.

Pedersen and Stuyven remain focused on the Classics and working in tandem to put a dent in the considerable armor of the Van Aert-van der Poel duo that are atop everyone’s list of favorites. It’s a fair fight now, with the two ‘crossers having the pedigree to dominate but Pedersen, the former world champion and runner up in Flanders, plus the perfect-for-P-R Stuyven, ready to pounce. Maybe one of the kids — Hoole or Simmons or Jakob Egholm — add some extra punch to their cobbles squad. Simmons struggled in his first go-round, as one does at age 20 in races that favor veteran hardmen, but his breakthrough in Wallonia might push his confidence to the next level. Big things are expected of Hoole, especially in the time trials, but his size makes him a valued asset in Paris-Roubaix. Egholm is a talented Dane whose first two years were scrambled by the pandemic, so we shouldn’t rush to judge his middling results. They won’t quite be on Quick Step’s level in terms of depth, but Trek will be a top five squad in Flanders this spring.

The same cannot be said for their grand tour ambitions, as former winner Nibali follows former third-place Porte as ex-Trekkers. That leaves only Mollema and Cataldo as known entities, both on the down slope of their careers. The hope though is that Ciccone is ready to take the next big step, with one complete and two truncated Giri in his legs, plus the 2019 Tour where he wore yellow for three days. The Abruzzese matched Giro winner Bernal on home soil on the stage to Rocca di Cambio, climbing into fourth overall, before trying for greater glory, attacking two stages later but failing to make it stick, steadily conceding more time until crashes put him out of the race. It’s hard to look at that and pronounce him ready to make a big splash this year in his Giro-Tour program, but if everything comes together and the Giro isn’t dominated by the big talents in the sport, he could grab a podium there, then go stage-hunting with Mollema and Pedersen in the Tour (which, Pedersen is quick to note, starts in Copenhagen).

81st Skoda-Tour De Luxembourg 2021 - Stage 4Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images
Skjelmose

After that, a victory would be signs of development from their many young riders. In addition to the incoming talents, there is Antonio Tiberi, a climber and time triallist in the Nibali mold if not in anything close to his accomplishments, a given at the young age of 20 years. There is Mattias Skjelmose, another Dane, only 21 and having flashed his considerable talent by taking 6th overall at the UAE Tour and 15th in the Tour de Romandie — two massive results at that stage of his development. Marc Brustenga, another incoming rider, is a notable classics talent from Catalunya. Juan Pedro Lopez, only 24, has a 13th place at the Vuelta and looks like the kind of steady rider who can build toward some valuable placings.

Overall, the team is deep in veteran talent from the middle range of the sport, but short on top-flight winners after Pedersen and Stuyven, something they hope the new kids can turn around. That may happen, but huge leaps from Skjelmose, Baroncini, Hellemose or Tiberi in 2022 is a bit too much to expect. Their goals for 2022 undoubtedly include, in no order, good health for Guercilena, big seasons from their classics leaders, and steady improvement in the younger guys. That could have them thinking bigger in 2023.


Categories:Podium Cafe - All Posts

Offseason Capsule: Bora Making Their Move

12/27/2021 12:02
80th Eurométropole Tour 2021
Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Merry Christmas (today) and happy holidays to all! Cycling is right around the corner, so I think I’ll kick off the season with a look into Bora-Hansgrohe’s fortunes. I haven’t been the closest watcher the last couple years during my break from the Editor’s role, so some of the looking back might be a bit superficial. But going forward I’m all in.

I picked Bora because I’m intrigued by the teams in the muddled middle of World Tour cycling, By one estimate, only three World Tour teams could claim to have at least half the budget that INEOS had available last year, and some seven teams whose budget was a quarter or less of what the UK juggernaut had. Those teams are in various stages of struggling against the awful financial reality found in there, including Alpecin-Fenix (not WT) which was terrific last year, but they are the exception and their relatively poor brethren mostly have a hard time competing in top races. At the upper end, Jumbo, Quick Step and the like can certainly deal with INEOS, budget or no. In between the poles are teams like Bora, who can run with the best teams if they assemble and deploy their roster with utmost care.

For several teams, the way out of the grasp of the wealthier teams is to catch the next rising star or stars and ride those young fresh legs to success. Bora didn’t do it that way. They splurged on signing Peter Sagan away from Tinkoff in 2016, for some 5 million Euros, and captured the glory of Sagan’s last couple truly great campaigns, notching a Paris-Roubaix, two more Tour de France green jerseys, and printing plenty of rainbow stripes in the process.

The bet that the rising Sagan tide would lift Bora’s collective boats absolutely paid off. The team was outside the top 10 before the contract was signed, but inside it the rest of the way, rising as high as third in the world and sitting at sixth or better for four of the five years with the Slovakian on board. They developed other reliable sources of points in Pascal Ackermann, Emanuel Buchmann, Patrik Konrad, and Nils Politt. They developed Sam Bennett into a winner. It was never really just the Sagan Show.

So, with Sagan and his salary departing, it’s not hard to see Bora’s needle pointing straight up.

What We Thought and Got Last Year

These had been two separate discussions in the past, but without 2020 capsules to reflect on, I won’t insult you by trying to go back in time and divine what we would have collectively been thinking about Bora’s upcoming 2021 season. I’d guess we were enthusiastic about some of the non-Saganites taking a step forward, in anticipation of Sagan himself maybe taking a step back.

FSA DS Ranking

We had them sixth overall with 9009 points, well back of winners Deceuninck Quick Step (20,326) and a cut below Bahrain Victorious which rounded out the top five. Ackermann was 28th in the individual standings.

108th Tour de France 2021 - Stage 12Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Top Three Highlights

  1. Pollitt takes tough Tour stage win. Nils Pollitt escaped for a solo win on a rugged stage of the Tour de France through the deep river gorges of the Ardeches. It was a day for crosswinds and breakaways, and that was really Bora’s biggest opportunity for making their presence felt in the Tour this year.
  2. October 7: Jordi Meeus wins Paris-Bourges from a big bunch, within minutes of his teammate Matthew Walls winning Gran Piemonte. Both could be considered breakthrough wins for the young riders, not shocking but a step forward in their development for sure. No doubt there were big smiles at team headquarters that week.
  3. Sagan sprints to Giro stage win in Foligno. The Sagan connection to Italy is a bit more understandable than his American thing, which was always weird? Like, he didn’t live here or speak the language? Anyway, Sagan had never raced the Giro before 2020, and hadn’t raced a normal one until this year, so I would expect he enjoyed it when he took the sprint on stage 10 and grabbed a lead in the points competition he would never relinquish.

Bottom Three Lowlights

  1. The January training crash that put three riders in the hospital and several more on the ground, undoubtedly a very frightening moment, and when the shock wore off, a huge annoyance for a team trying to get ready for the upcoming season. The main victims were Wilco Kelderman and Rudi Selig, both of whom went on to seasons which more or less fit expectations, but honestly, I don’t know how all these guys don’t have PTSD.
  2. Sagan’s run with Bora fizzles out. Actually it flamed out, with Sagan leaving after being rumored to do so, and then dropping out of his final Tour appearance, and finally having the public learn of his drunken arrest in April for violating curfew in Monaco, during which he proceeded to punch a cop. These are all separate things, but sorta feel related? Like things were just coming off the rails a bit?
  3. San Sebastian dreams fizzle. Bora had Kelderman, Matteo Fabbro and Giovanni Aleotti in good position heading into the final climbs, only for a touch of wheels to take all three riders down. Crashes and bad luck are a regular thing in cycling, of course, and you could just as easily add Buchmann’s Giro crash to this list instead, given that he was a podium contender. But a triple-hit-the-decker is a bit much.
17th Benelux Tour 2021 - Stage 1Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Comings and Goings for 2022

Departures: Sagan, the other Sagan (Juraj), Bodnar, Oss and Specialized all leave for Total Direct Energies. Ackermann to UAE. Schwartzmann and Selig to Lotto.

Incoming: Sam Bennett returns from Quick Step with Shane Archbold. ITT beast Ryan Mullen comes over from Trek. Climbing team nabs Alexander Vlasov, Sergio Higuita and Jai Hindley. Massive acquisition on the youth side with Cian Uijtdebroeks — the next Remco — and German climber Luis-Joe Lührs.

So What Happens Next?

OMG… I LOVE THIS ROSTER! This is basically the part of the post where I really begin having fun, and the whole reason I wanted to start with Bora. Maybe they don’t have Pogacar or Roglic or Bernal, or INEOS’ fire hose of money to blast at any rider they want. Picking a Bora rider to win a grand tour in 2022 is a dicey proposition. But they are going to be a problem for a lot of teams in a lot of races.

Let’s start with the Grand Tours. Buchmann is two odd years removed from a fourth place finish at Le Tour, and Kelderman just took fifth after leveling up at the 2020 Giro, which just barely slipped through his fingers. Speaking of, Hindley — just 25 — showed promise in that same Giro and surely has more to offer than we saw in last year’s campaign that was wrecked by really bad saddle sores. Vlasov was fourth in the Giro last year on his first attempt. Higuita, 24, has flashed his huge talent at us a few times but hasn’t put anything massive together… yet.

The stage race team features plenty of depth too, with the Austrians Grossschartner and Kamna, plus Fabbro, Politt and others to help out or take their chances when they come up. The classics team, on the other hand, might be left out in the cold. Politt was sensational on the cobbles in 2019, but hasn’t got a ton of help right now. Sagan’s Guys all leaving create something of a void there. Meeus has talent in these events, but it will be hard for Bora to make much noise in April.

Finally, the sprint squad trades out Ackermann for Bennett. I would rate that a loss since Ackermann is more productive and four years younger. Bennett, though, has a green jersey in his closet, which makes up for a few missed sprints. Walls and Meeus can help in some smaller races, unless they make the leap to the big time and take some of the pressure off Bennett.

27th UEC Road Cycling European Championships 2021 - Junior Men’s Road RacePhoto by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
Cian Uijtdebroeks

And then there is Uijtdebroeks. The kid is just 18, so when people say he’s “the next ___” you have to take it with a giant boulder of salt. Even more so when Belgians and their media are involved. But the hype machine is in full roar, and Bora took him over Quick Step and other suitors, so I’ll be VERY curious to see what sort of a program they lay out for him in 2022.

I’ll stop there. Overall they are one of the muddled middle for sure, as is everyone who doesn’t have one of the elite-elites on their team, but among their strata they are loaded to the brim with talent. It should be a pretty exciting time as the roster turns over from Peter’s Team to a whole new project.


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Raincoats are for Tourists, by Isabel Best

12/24/2021 0:03
Raphaël Géminiani
Raphaël Géminiani | Ste Johnson / Rapha Editions / Blue Train Publishing

Title: Raincoats are for Tourists – The Racing Secrets of Raphaël Géminiani
Author: Isabel Best (with a foreword by Simon Mottram and illustrations by Ste Johnson)
Publisher: Rapha Editions in association with Blue Train Publishing
Year: 2020
Pages: 225
Order: Rapha
What it is: Exactly what it says in the tin – the racing secrets of Raphaël Géminiani, the mastermind behind some of Jacques Anquetil’s most famous exploits
Strengths: We need more cycling books where people like Gem are allowed to tell their stories
Weaknesses: Gem’s stories sometimes feel like a way for him to not reveal too much of himself

Isabel Best’s ‘Raincoats are for Tourists’ is artfully illustrated by Ste JohnsonRapha Editions / Blue Train Publishing
Isabel Best’s ‘Raincoats are for Tourists’ is artfully illustrated by Ste Johnson

What does a raincoat do for you? Nothing at all, raincoats are for tourists. If you wear a raincoat you’ll get drenched in sweat, and you’ll get dropped, because your skin can’t breathe. So you have to accept getting wet.
~ Raphaël Géminiani

Endings are difficult. Few get them right. Not Raphaël Géminiani, who ended his racing career on the last day of May, 1960, somewhere between Valence and Orange on the opening stage of the Dauphiné Libéré:

I let everyone go past, the officials, everyone else. I took off my race number and I climbed into a cherry tree, and I ate cherries. […] I didn’t want to be dropped, so I abandoned. And I never raced again. It happened just like that. I set off with my team, hoping to do well, and then…it just wasn’t the same. It wasn’t worth it.

If there’s one thing most of us know about Raphaël Géminiani it’s likely to be something to do with the Dauphiné, it’s likely to be his role in Jacques Anquetil winning the Dauphiné in 1965 and then immediately winning Bordeaux-Paris. But there’s so much more to the man than that one worn thin tale. As a rider, Gem could have been a contender.

I should have won the Tour de France. I should have won the Giro. I had all the jerseys. I was always beaten two days before the finish. I had the yellow jersey at the Tour and I was beaten by Gaul. In the Vuelta I came third. In the Giro I finished fourth and I had the pink jersey.

Géminiani rode through the fifties – his riding career ran from 1946 to 1960 – and the fifties pretty much picked up where the thirties had left off, almost as if the war had just been an extended break for tea and sandwiches. The golden age that had begun with riders with matinee idol looks like Charles Pélissier and André Leducq, that had continued with the style-conscious Fausto Coppi and reached its apogee with the arrival of Hugo Koblet. There was barely a duff year throughout the decade – and it was a long decade, beginning in the forties and ending in the sixties – and every year delivered moments for the ages. Here’s Isabel Best:

Name any famous moment from that golden age and Géminiani was there: Gino Bartali winning seven stages and the overall in the 1948 Tour de France, a decade and a world war after his first victory; Fausto Coppi, putting so much time into his rivals in the 1952 Tour de France that the race organisers doubled the prize money for second place; Hugo Koblet riding 135 kilometres in his own while the best riders in the peloton tried yet failed to reel him in; Federico Bahamontes, the greatest climber and worst descender, reaching the summit of the Col de Romeyère with a 14-minute advantage on his rivals, then stopping to eat an ice cream; Charly Gaul again, winning the Giro in the snow, the conditions so terrible that 57 riders abandoned. Two years later at the Tour de France he would strike again, in horrible weather. This time he was 16 minutes behind Géminiani, who was wearing the yellow jersey with only one mountains stage to go. In driving rain he reduced his deficit by 14 minutes and extinguished Géminiani’s best, and last, chance of winning the Tour.

Raincoats are for Tourists falls somewhere between Paul Jones’s I Like Alf and Herbie Sykes’s The Giro 100, two books that are underappreciated masterpieces. As with the Alf Engers book, you get lessons drawn from the life of a rider who was a character, larger than life. As with the Giro book, you get to tune in and out of a rider’s memories. As with both books, you get the story of a man who understands what real happiness is:

the greats were all friends, whether it was Koblet and Kübler, Van Steenbergen, Van Looy, Coppi, Bartali, Gaul… they were all friends. They knew that I had the means, that I could be dangerous when I wanted. I had the recognition of the greats. And that was enough for me.

I was lucky and unlucky. I was lucky to live alongside them, but I was also unlucky that my career coincided with theirs. That’s what made racing beautiful.

Such introspection, it’s not as common as it should be in the books that appear on the Café Bookshelf.

It’s not all inward looking, more of it is legendary – sometimes even mythical – tales of derring-do. Here’s one story that’s worth telling in whole:

The penultimate stage of the 1952 Giro d’Italia, the setting for one of Raphaël Géminiani’s racing secretsLa Stampa
The penultimate stage of the 1952 Giro d’Italia, St Vincent to Verbania, the setting for one of Raphaël Géminiani’s racing secrets

In 1952 I was in the Giro riding for Bianchi and Fausto [Coppi] had the pink jersey.

Bartali was leading the mountains classification and people were only cheering for him.

Coppi couldn’t stand it: here he was winning the Giro and the crowds were only cheering for Bartali.

On the Grand-Saint-Bernard, Coppi and I attacked but 150m from the summit Bartali left us standing.

Coppi was thinking shit, he’s going to win the mountains jersey and everyone’s talking about him more than me.

I said to Fausto: ‘What’s this col we’ve got coming up?’

‘It’s the Semplon.’

‘What’s it like?’

‘Oh goodness, it’s really tough at the beginning.’

‘OK,’ I said. ‘Listen, let me try something.’

And on the Semplon, right from the foot of the mountain, I went on the attack: bang! I pulverised the peloton, and Bartali was among the pulverised. I led over the top of the Semplon and Bartali was something like 25th. I won the mountains prize, and Bartali was only third.

That evening, Coppi said: ‘How did you do that? Why did you attack there?’

‘Have you ever noticed how Bartali has difficulty keeping the pace when he’s at the foot of a climb, but when he’s at the top he’s unbeatable?’

Coppi said: ‘It never occurred to me to attack down below. I never thought of that.’

Coppi was always at the head of the peloton, but I noticed that Bartali always attacked the mountains from behind and that he had difficulties at the start of climbs. He was always panting. He was a smoker and at the foot of a climb he was always short of breath. I realised that Coppi, who was always up ahead, never noticed. But I did.

Géminiani being such a larger than life character, I do wonder how much of that story is really true. This was the penultimate stage of the ‘52 Giro and while it’s true that Bartali was first over the St Bernard I don’t think he was leading the mountains classification, even with the points gained there. And while it’s true that Gem lit up the Semplon, Bartali was only 40 seconds behind at the top. But Gem did win the mountains classification (with 31 points) and Bartali did finish third (with 23 points), with Coppi separating the two (28 points). As for Coppi not noticing that Bartali by that stage of his career huffed and puffed in the early parts of a mountain: maybe it’s true, or maybe it’s like Anquetil putting his bidon in his back pocket when climbing.

True or not, in some ways it doesn’t matter here. If anybody else told that story, it’d need to be fact checked. But if Gem’s telling it … well it’s how Géminiani remembers it, and the larger parts of the story do hold water: Bartali got the cheers on the St Bernard, Coppi probably got the hump with that, Gem beat them all up on the Semplon. And he ends the whole tale with a moral. What more do you want, cherries?

That ability to read a race, to read a rider – the self belief that he could read a race, read a rider – that’s partly why Géminiani was such a good DS, whether it was with Anquetil, Luis Ocaña, Stephen Roche, or even the Colombians in the 80s. The tragedy of Gem’s career as a DS, though, was that apart from the Anquetil years his bosses – the sponsors – didn’t back him as much as they should. But the successes of the Anquetil years more than make up for the set-backs endured in the later years.

What made Gem such a good DS? “I was an uncompromising directeur sportif. I knew cycling too well. So the mistakes I made – I didn’t want my riders making them.” Had he been as good as Koblet and Kübler, Van Steenbergen, Van Looy, Coppi, Bartali, Gaul, Gem wouldn’t have been as good a team boss. Things would have come too easy to him and he wouldn’t have had to think about them. And that was a lesson learned as a kid:

“I taught myself. There was my father but he couldn’t give me that much advice because he was of a different generation and he didn’t know French cycling. […] You have to get to know yourself, to notice your rivals’ weaknesses, to recognise your own limits and capabilities and to work on all this over the years. That’s how you build a long career, because if you want to last, you have to know yourself. If you don’t, you’ll make mistakes and you won’t last long.”

The most important thing that Raphaël Géminiani has to teach you today is that you have to teach yourself. And with Isabel Best’s careful direction he does that in Raincoats are for Tourists with the kind of wit and wisdom that is too often lacking in the books that appear on the Café Bookshelf.

Isabel Best’s ‘Raincoats are for Tourists – The Racing Secrets of Raphaël Géminiani’ (2020, 225 pages) is published by Rapha Editions in association with Blue Train Publishing
Isabel Best’s ‘Raincoats are for Tourists – The Racing Secrets of Raphaël Géminiani’ (2020, 225 pages) is published by Rapha Editions in association with Blue Train Publishing


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End of Autumn Open Thread

12/17/2021 0:03
64th E3 Saxo Bank Classic 2021
Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

So many odd and ends…

So much to say now I don’t know where to begin. I guess I’ll start with my usual holiday pleading — you can’t believe how busy my life is in December! What? Everyone’s is? Ok, well can you top Thanksgiving, straight into Hannukah (way too early), straight into two kid birthdays, capped off by a bit of Christmas? I have registered this complaint before, as a way of letting you know why the space has been quiet, but whatever, it’s winding down and I can get away from family and holidays and joy, and back to important things like blogging about cycling.

Monte Carlo Beking 2021Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT FLANDERS!

Pop Quiz: who is the last Tour de France winner to get a top ten result in the Ronde van Vlaanderen?

If you can’t think of that one, well, I have good news for you: you will probably be able to pick the next one. Yesterday Tadej Pogacar’s camp announced that the Slovenian double-Tour winner will take the start at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (he said “four monuments” but there’s only one headline to take from that). And I am here to announce that he is going to get a good result.

Obviously this prediction is predicated on the evidence that Pogacar is simply good at everything he tries. His climbing and time trialling need no introduction, but his sprinting is a bit underrated, or was before last fall when he beat Fausto Masnada for the Lombardia crown, and took high placings in such events as Tre Valle Varesine (3rd), the Euro Champs (5th), and the Olympics (3rd). Another curious data point is his 18th place in his lone attempt in Flanders, the U23 race, which he rode as a 19 year old in 2018 and finished in the bunch sprint for second behind the likes of Robert Standard and Marc Hirschi.

So what can’t he do? His LBL win makes a good case for him as a punchy climber who can navigate the twists and turns of Belgium. Flanders is quite different, but how many times has he already ridden there and how much more practice will he need to succeed on the cobbles? My guess is, not very much. If he won, nobody would be terribly shocked, would they? Flanders used to be less of a specialists’ race (compared to Paris-Roubaix anyway) and has its share of former winners who were grand tour stars. And while you never see Tour guys stop by to race Paris-Roubaix, presumably #5 of the four Monuments Pogacar is planning for next year, you see a trickle of them around at Flanders.

The potential problems for Pogs would be a lack of pack positioning skill, something his team can help him with, and maybe a lack of cobbles handling, though in Flanders the stones aren’t of a character where they can just throw you off your bike. The likeliest scenario is that he is beaten in a sprint, or hammered off the wheels by Quick Step in a small group sometime in the last 40 minutes or so. Second likeliest is that he gets stuck on the Koppenberg behind some guys who are walking their bikes.

E3 Course Announcement

Our favorite Flanders warmup, the re-renamed E3 Prijs Harelbeke Saxo Classic honoring the E… 17, announced its 2022 parcours yesterday. I don’t see any drastic changes and it’s not worth breaking down a map, since it will be about the same race we saw last year. But this is a great way to present a course that people might otherwise not be ready to pay attention to:

Speaking of Parcours Details

I guess maybe you heard that the Vuelta is Going Big in 2022? Here’s another fun video version rather than the usual data. Oh and the squiggly yellow lines on the top end of the map? That’s the Picos de Europa. That’s the good news.

Go here for the complete stage list.

CX Check-In: Getting Real

One of my convo threads talked about how the kids have had their fun but now the grownups have come home. Sorry if that’s disrespectful to Eli Iserbyt and Quinten Hermans and Lars van der Vaar, but Wout Van Aert’s return has seen the smack laid down so thoroughly that even wizened Cross fans are taken aback. Doesn’t he need to warm up for a race or two? [Nope.] Aren’t the rest of the group at least capable of pressuring him? [Sorry, no.] Can’t Pidcock at least slow him down? [You’d think. And you’d be wrong.]

Van Aert has now won all three of his starts in Cross this season, with the Christmas Period races looming large. Saturday was in Italy at the Val di Sole World Cup, raced on a carpet of snow. It went… pretty well? Looked a lot like a normal race except in certain sections and corners where handling the bike became nearly impossible. Van Aert himself crashed a couple times, as did probably everyone else.

The Kerstperiode is the Cross equivalent of late March-mid April for the cobbles: a non-stop rolling series of races that everyone shows up for. Rucphen (NL) is next this Saturday, and was slated to be where Mathieu van der Poel began his world championship defense, but he banged his knee in training and has pushed his start back by a week. Still, there are plenty of races happening, with Van Aert and Pidcock already going and van der Poel about to join the fun. Van Aert will be at pretty much every race, and the Wout-Matti showdowns are marked below.

  • 12/18 Rucphen NL (WC)
  • 12/19 Namen BE (WC)
  • 12/26 Dendermonde BE (WC) WVA-vdP
  • 12/27 Heusden Zolder BE (Sup)
  • 12/29 Diegem BE (SUP) WVA-vdP
  • 12/30 Loenhout BE (X20) WVA-vdP
  • 1/1 Baal BE (X20)
  • 1/2 Hulst NL (WC) WVA-vdP

January stays busy and both van der Poel and Pidcock are targeting a visit to the Worlds in Fayetteville, Arkansas (USA), where there will be a not inconsiderable Podium Cafe contingent on hand, including myself. So start gearing up!

Quiz Answer

Geraint Thomas registered a career-best 8th place (he was previously tenth) at the 2014 Ronde van Vlaanderen. Thomas would go on to win the Tour de France in 2018.

However! If you want a better analogy, a rider who was already a Tour de France champion when he rolled up to the Ronde van Vlaanderen and got a result, you would have to go all the way back to… take a wild guess… Eddy Merckx, who won de Ronde in 1975, while holding all five of his Tour de France titles.

More recently, 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali rolled up and took 24th at the 2018 Ronde. Greg LeMond missed being the answer to this question by a year-plus, taking seventh in Flanders in 1985, just before his breakthrough 1986 season in France. Also Joop Zoetemelk was 10th in Flanders a year before his Tour win. Maybe the best recent example is 1990 Giro d’Italia winner Gianni Bugno showing up and taking the Flanders victory in 1994. Or that would be a great example if results from the 1990s had any meaning.


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Dirty Feet, by Les Woodland

12/14/2021 0:03
The monument to the Father of the Tour on the Col du Galibier
The monument to the Father of the Tour on the Col du Galibier | CAP / Roger Viollet / Getty Images

Title: Dirty Feet – How the Great Unwashed Created the Tour de France
Author: Les Woodland
Publisher: McGann Publishing
Year: 2021
Pages: 197
Order: McGann Publishing
What it is: A brief history of the Tour de France
Strengths: As well as retelling many of the usual anecdotes Woodland opens himself up to questioning some of the stories that have become stock-in-trade when telling the Tour’s history
Weaknesses: Woodland is, at times, playing fast and loose with the truth in order to sell a story about the Tour being a race for supermen

A long, long, time ago I reviewed Les Woodland’s Crooked Path to Victory and noted that, enjoyable as it was, it lacked a central argument pulling together all the tales told. It’s a criticism that fits most of the prolific cycling historian’s offerings: they’re packed full of enjoyable anecdotes but generally they lack a strong thread pulling all the stories together. No such criticism could be made of Woodland’s latest offering, Dirty Feet – How the Great Unwashed Created the Tour de France.

Desgrange saw sport and the Tour in particular as social engineering. He wanted not just a cycling champion but a champion so mighty, so inspiring, that he would lead French youth out of their bow-legged, half-educated gloom. With that would come greatness for France.

Desgrange never spoke publicly in favour of what we now call social Darwinism, the belief that society should be manipulated so that the advancement of the strong over the weak could be accelerated. But that, through example if not force, was his aim. Desgrange wanted not so much a sport but, in his own words, a race so hard that only one man could survive. The survival of the fittest, therefore.

Some of the evidence Woodland produces to support his claims is weak. For starters, we have yet to see proof that Henri Desgrange ever said that he wanted a race so hard that only one man could survive, while we have plenty of evidence of him interfering in order to keep riders in his race. Given that Desgrange was a journalist first and foremost, and that the Tour was designed to sell additional copies of L’Auto, it’s actually kind of hard to believe Desgrange ever did claim to want a race so hard only one man would reach the Parc des Princes. Who would buy L’Auto if that actually came to pass?

That said, I’m willing to park my scepticism the day Woodland or anyone else produces evidence showing Desgrange really did dream of just one rider making it back to Paris. Until then, it’s going to take a lot of helium for me to hoist aloft my disbelief where this tall tale is concerned.

More seriously, Woodland is – not for the first time – calling Desgrange a racist:

[Desgrange] wrote in the first issue of L’Auto that, thanks to sport and the backing that his paper would give it, ‘our race will soon find itself radically transformed’, but there was no explanation of just what he meant by ‘race’. It could, of course, have meant simply the human race but social Darwinism was at the time also being used to justify the domination and colonialism of black men.

Desgrange’s support of – well, his possible knowledge of the discussion of – social Darwinism, could that mean that Desgrange was a racist? Gosh! One feels almost tempted to say that extraordinary allegations require extraordinary proof. Hell, I’d settle for some ordinary proof. But, thing is, if you got to that first issue of L’Auto – and it’s only a click away today on Gallica – and you actually read what Desgrange wrote, you find him saying this:

And soon our race will find itself radically transformed. Like the Anglo-Saxon race, it will henceforth spread everywhere…

Ask me, it’s pretty damn clear what Desgrange was talking about. And it wasn’t Black and White.

Woodland, though, is married to the idea of it being Black and White. To buttress the claim he brings up the story of Henri Desgrange, Major Taylor, and a wheelbarrow full of centimes. Long story short, one time Desgrange paid cycling’s first Black world champion with 10-centime coins, so many that Taylor needed a wheelbarrow to cart the coins away. Or so the story goes, anyway. And Woodland tells us it’s a story told everywhere. Daniel de Visé tells it, Woodland informs us. As does Marlene Targ Brill, someone I’d never before heard of before but whose Amazon profile tells us is “the author of over seventy award-winning books.” Those books cover everything from lung cancer and diabetes to concrete mixers and garbage trucks. The very definition, I think, of eclectic tastes and just the sort of author you’d want to cite to support a claim like this.

De Visé and Brill may be the only two authors Woodland can think who repeat this shaggy dog story but I can add Peter Cossins and Geoffrey Wheatcroft. And Les Woodland himself, who on at least two previous occasions has served up the wheelbarrow story as Gospel. Funny how he forgot to mention that.

Now, though, Woodland no longer quite believes the story. Or, more precisely, he no longer believes the bit about the wheelbarrow. But he still believes Desgrange was a racist, and the existence of the wheelbarrow story – a story, remember, that Woodland himself has helped to popularise, several times – proves the charge:

Maybe it’s more likely that someone laughed that ‘[Taylor] probably needed a wheelbarrow to cart [his prize money] away’ and that a joking remark spread as fact. But the fact that it’s told suggests that it illustrates Desgrange’s view of life.

So there you have it. The Tour de France was created by a racist.

The Father of the Tour, Henri DesgrangeHarlingue / Roger Viollet / Getty Images
The Father of the Tour, Henri Desgrange

I’ll go into this cock and bull story in great depth elsewhere but, for now, here, let me be clear: Henri Desgrange was not a racist and the sort of acrobatic leaps of logic and out-of-context quoting Woodland engages in here shouldn’t encourage you to think he was.

Let’s go back to the notion that Desgrange “wanted not just a cycling champion but a champion so mighty, so inspiring, that he would lead French youth out of their bow-legged, half-educated gloom.” Here’s Woodland yet again repeating that unsourced claim about Desgrange’s singular belief:

When it’s said, as it so often is, that Desgrange’s ideal Tour de France would be one in which only one man had the strength to finish, that was exactly the case. As Geoffrey Wheatcroft says: ‘These first Tour men were far from physical wrecks but they have the unmistakable proletarian appearance of their time, gnarled and knotty.’ The man who survived better than the rest would be a superman, more than three decades before an American comic book gave him his face.

Superman didn’t need to wait for Siegel and Shuster, he was alive and well even in Desgrange’s day. Nietzsche’s Übermensch had been around since the 1880s. Alfred Jarry’s Surmâle was born the year before the Tour. George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman was written in 1903. None of these are considered in Dirty Feet – and really they should, each offering very different takes on the notion of supermen and collectively showing that in Desgrange’s day the notion of a superman was a contested space – but their absence got me thinking more about Woodland’s reference to the Man of Steel. Rather than the restrictive notion of Superman, would we not be wiser instead to think of the Tour as a race for superheroes?

The modern superhero certainly offers an interesting analogy for the Tour. Look at Captain America or Black Panther and you get Tour heroes down through the ages, ordinary people transformed by super serums or heart-shaped herbs, the EPO and Ketones of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Look at Spider-Man, a kid transformed by a insect’s bite and how can you not see Chris Froome transformed by parasitic worms? Look at Iron Man and think of the humble bicycle transformed by technology, handlebars becoming cockpits. More importantly, I can’t look at all the Tour titles on my bookshelf (including one with my own name on its spine – I am fully aware of the glass house in which I reside) and not think of the MCU, the same story packaged and repackaged time and again, never varying, always delivering the comfort of familiarity.

And so to the familiar. Dirty Feet has many of the Tour’s greatest hits: from the Dreyfus affaire (a story, it’s worth recalling, that tells us the Tour was the product of anti-Semitism – it really does tick all the boxes, doesn’t it?) to Alphonse Steinès crossing the Tourmalet on foot; from Albert Londres being gulled by the Pélissiers into believing they rode on dynamite (Londres is always being gulled by the Pélissiers whenever Woodland tells that story, he wasn’t a cycling journalist so what would he know of the Tour?) to the well-told (if not always told well) story of Eugène Christophe; and on and on through any number of familiar stories about familiar heroes.

They may be the Tour’s greatest hits but sometimes the album tracks are more entertaining. Woodland, though, doesn’t dwell long on stories such as how the Amaurys came to control the Tour (but he does dwell on it long enough on it to incorrectly tell us that Jacques Goddet’s brother, Maurice, was his uncle), he’s too busy telling us about the things we already know and know well.

He’s also too busy chiding others. Take Tom Simpson and how the Comic “can’t bring itself to acknowledge what he achieved. He is remembered not for his victories but for the day of his death and the way it revealed him, along with the sport in which he made his living, as a drug-taker. It named not Simpson as its man of the century in 2001 but the track rider Chris Boardman, breaker of the world hour record but never once a finisher in the Tour de France and nor a world champion on the road.” That jeremiad comes in the middle of Woodland’s own account of the day of Simpson’s death and the way it revealed him, along with the sport in which he made his living, as a drug-taker. Does Woodland discuss Simpson’s successes outside of the Tour? Of course he doesn’t.

Woodland has been writing about cycling since 1965 when he wrote his first reports for the Comic. The man is a font of knowledge and a fine raconteur. His work has been cited by authors as diverse as Daniel Coyle (Lance Armstrong’s War) and David Coventry (The Invisible Mile). Dirty Feet, though, feels like a cheap attempt to be controversial with its attempt to declare Desgrange a racist. I had hoped for better.

Les Woodland’s ‘Dirty Feet – How the Great Unwashed Created the Tour de France’ (2021, 197 pages) is published by McGann Publishing
Les Woodland’s ‘Dirty Feet – How the Great Unwashed Created the Tour de France’ (2021, 197 pages) is published by McGann Publishing

Categories:Podium Cafe - All Posts

Sorting the Sprinters: Who’s On Top?

12/13/2021 0:03
108th Tour de France 2021 - Stage 13
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Come crunch some 2021 data with me to get a picture of who’s who among the fastmen for 2022

Mark Cavendish has been in the news a few times of late. One was for a horrifying armed break-in at his home, which I can’t even believe how that feels. But before that he was laid up by a crash in late November at the Gent Six Day races, which left him back in England recuperating. On the positive side of the ledger, he had his contract extended for 2022 with Quick Step, and is in the conversation for Sportsman of the Year in the UK. It’s been a pretty wild ride for the Manxman, who came back from several years of poor health and performance to win four stages of the Tour de France — which he wasn’t selected to start until the team had a falling out with Sam Bennett — to equal the career stage victory record of Eddy Merck at 34 wins.

This is the same Cavendish who burst into our conscience at the 2007 Tour, a young kid trying to steal the thunder of the Tour de France’s London start, only to crash out after a few days. The same one who returned to the race a year later and took four stages, along with the title “fastest man in the world,” which he did not relinquish until, I dunno, 2014? This guy was in our lives for a long time, and he’s still there!

108th Tour de France 2021 - Stage 21Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

I don’t intend to go on about Cav, there are enough places to read that story if somehow you missed it the first 500 times around. But it does raise the question, where is men’s cycling at with sprinters these days? When a guy from the George W. Bush era is still your top sprinter, is sprinting OK?

That’s a complicated question and depends an awful lot on what you want out of your sprint scene. If you want to dial back to Cav’s early years, or those of maybe Tom Boonen circa 2006, or more recently one of Marcel Kittel’s top seasons, times when you could point to one rider and say “that’s the fastest man in the world,” then I have bad news for you. But if you’re more attuned to the wide-open competition we see in everything right now (save for stage races targeted by Tadej Pogacar), then these are… pretty good times? There certainly is no one rider we all want to tag with the fastest man label, nor is anyone statistically dominant. So just how good things are now depends on whether you think the lack of a singular figure is a sign of overall quality or weakness.

To get some clarity on what is going on right now, I am dusting off an old method for assessing sprinters — crunching some numbers. This table looks at wins, win percentage, frequency in the top three and top five, and average finish. It uses results where, as far as I can tell, the rider participated in some sort of large bunch sprint. The data isn’t perfect, occasionally up for debate, but there is, I think, enough of it for you to draw some basic conclusions. A couple notes:

  • The point of this data is to spot tendencies, particularly regarding consistency. Personally I would think that teams would value a guy who delivers the best results the most often. Wins are currency, but not all wins are alike, and if you want to point to a particular win or three (e.g. Tour stages), well, that’s still anecdotal. If that’s all you ever win, it raises questions about your versatility (a/k/a the Kittel Effect).
  • I like top 3 and top 5 numbers as a sign of a rider’s ability to get into position. Wins measure closing speed, but if you struggle to find the front of the race at the end, that’s an issue.
  • I ranked riders by most to fewest results, just because the larger pool of results is an indicator of greater power in the data. [If I sound almost, but not quite, like someone who understands the science of statistics, or any science at all, that’s not a mirage.]
  • What’s missing from this data is sprints completely missed. I’d have to look at a lot more results, e.g. when Jordi Meeus finishes 181st in the opening Vuelta stage. That’s an important factor, whether a rider can be relied on to get in position at all, but it’s beyond my grasp for now. Maybe I’ll get a bit more time over vacation and re-run that info. Also missing are any results outside the top 20. A 33rd place could mean a few different things, without taking the time to examine the last 3km video.
  • Finally, I have bolded the best numbers in the table below, and placed in italics those numbers that are a cut above.

From this information, you should probably conclude that Cavendish did, after all, have the best season in 2021 — he raced a fair amount, he led the table in wins, his consistency was good, and of course if we dug into quality of wins, he would check out there too. But if you broaden the discussion to what riders showed some sort of claim for best sprinter going forward, you would have to take more into account than who happened to have matters well in hand in this lone season. So I will break out my conclusions into tiers.

The Surest Bets

Mark Cavendish — It’s weird to say this, but the conclusion can’t be helped: at age 36, the Manx Missile was at the very top of the sport. I didn’t believe it, I’m not sure he believed it. Certainly lots of team managers didn’t believe it, since Cav was Very Available last winter (after pondering retirement) and got picked up on a one-year deal for his services. But after a few years of constant crashes and illness and the weirdness of 2020, when people like me started to see his fading results as fading form, it turned out that he just needed to get right and his lingering natural talent could take over again. The ten wins this year came with a consistency reflected in his average placing (2.3) and 78% podiums. For him to be so good at 36 may be unprecedented, but so is the rest of his sprinting career.

118th Paris-Roubaix 2021 - Men’s EiltePhoto by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Jasper Philipsen — This is no less surprising, but the 23-year-old Belgian shot up the rankings into 10th in the world, on the strength of a very consistent, very high-level season that included two grand tours, one of which (the Vuelta) saw him take stage victories for the first time. I feel like the numbers and the quality make this selection beyond dispute. His raw point total bested Carapaz, Evenepoel and a host of other big names having big seasons. His win total was second only to Cavendish (talking sprints). His large sample size reflects his ability to contest a ton of races, second only to the Swiss Army knife Nizzolo. He bested Cav in Paris (behind Wout). And across all those results, he matched the Manxman’s consistency with 20 podiums in 25 tries. All this on a team where he’s sometimes their third option, behind van der Poel and Merlier. I haven’t exactly broken down film on him (not that I would even know what I was seeing), but this is an incredible record for a young dude.

The Other Guys With a Claim To the Throne

Sam Bennett — A year ago the Irishman was feeling content with having reached the exclusive club of riders to win stages of all three grand tours. Now? He is back out the door to Bora after a bout of knee soreness and Patrick Lefevre assholishness cost him his place at the Tour and any subsequent appearances. His last race was in May. But in his shortened season, Bennett seemed to confirm what he’s been up to for a few years now, making a serious claim to fastest man, winning seven of his ten sprint efforts from the UAE Tour to the Volta ao Algarve, his last race. The only upside is that his downfall paved the way for the July Cavaissance, and who could be against that? But his incomplete season leaves us wondering where he is.

80th Eurométropole Tour 2021Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Fabio Jakobsen — This whole category is basically guys who had incomplete seasons for one reason or another, and Jakobsen’s was easily the most heart-warming version. His return from his horrible crash in Poland in 2020 was hardly expected, but Jakobsen not only overcame his injuries and any psychological scars that might go along with what he experienced — he recovered his speed as well. After a couple months of stage racing for DQS, regaining his race form in support of their other sprinters, the wraps came off at the Tour de Wallonie in July where he immediately scored a couple wins, form he carried into the Vuelta where he took three more stages and the points competition, more or less trading blows with Philipsen and edging him in stages 3-2. Just a stunning turn of events for a guy who went through hell. Jakobsen is two years older than Jasper, but if Jasper is at the top of the sport, then Fabio belongs right there with him.

Wout Van Aert — Another small sample size, because Wout… has a lot of jobs? When making time to contest sprints, he took four victories, plus three more podium places. His sprint win in Paris is as good a single-day surrogate for world’s fastest man, although it tends to feature something less than everyone we would like. When he winds it up, he can beat the best. But it’s not his regular gig.

Caleb Ewan — The most conventional of the shortened season explanations, the Aussie was in fine form as usual until crashing out of the Tour, and apart from a win in the Benelux Tour he never seemed to get his season in gear again. He beat the likes of Merlier, Bennett and some of the other prominent names on this list along the way, so at 28 there is every reason to believe he has a shot at being the top dog again.

BENELUX CYCLING TOUR STAGE FOURPhoto by DAVID STOCKMAN/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

The Next Tier

Tim Merlier — Philipsen says his Belgian teammate is the fastest finisher in the world, and his wins at the Giro and the Tour say there is something to that. Merlier comes from the Cross world and at age 30 is only just making his way into the top tier. His consistency is also a tick below the more established bunch sprinters, hence his placement in this category that you could call “guys who might be great but I have some skepticism.” His average placement of 4.1 is off the podium, which seems like a telling stat. Or would, if he weren’t part of this three-headed hydra where he isn’t always the team’s pick to win. He’s an exciting rider to watch but let’s pump the brakes until we get another full season of seeing what he can do at the top level.

Elia Viviani — Seven wins says that the Veneto man was back in 2021, after the previous year’s weirdness, but his wins weren’t terribly impressive, he didn’t break through at the Giro, and at age 32 it’s easier to imagine him losing ground than gaining it. But 80% top five says he wasn’t far off his top level, and he’s returning to SKINEOS where maybe we will decide that his two years at Cofidis (after a big run for Quick Step) were more the issue than anything in Viv’s legs.

42nd Tour de Wallonie 2021 - Stage 4Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Dylan Groenewegen — The Dutchman rode a wave of big wins pre-covid to a top place in the sport, but his role in Jakobsen’s crash sent him out into the wilderness, and it remains to be seen whether he ever really makes it back. He’s only 29, and just got released from the more GC-focused Jumbo to get a career restart at Team Bike Exchange, who don’t really have a guy of his caliber these days. Hard to sort out all the politics and feelings he’s dealing with, but if this clears the way for Groenewegen to just race again, this could be a big development in the sprint world.

The Don’t Forget About Me Tier

Magnus Cort Nielsen — Now we are getting into the usual suspects. MCN scored five wins, three at the Vuelta (of varying character) and a Paris-Nice stage among them. I feel like calling him a sprinter is underselling his versatility, and anyway he’s a cut below most of the guys up above though he gets it done often enough to suggest otherwise.

Nacer Bouhanni — Kind of a lost year, again, as his Area-Samsic years have consistently been below what he was for a while at Cofidis. But his top 5% says he’s not completely lost.

Matteo Trentin — He’s won too many sprints over the years for me to leave him off this list, and he contests them still as his top5% shows. But his wins have come more from the classics these days.

Giacomo Nizzolo — Jackie Nitz had his best season in a few years, showing up everywhere (leading the field in sprints attempted) and scoring three wins including a Giro stage for his troubles. For a guy who we thought peaked in 2016, his podium percentage (46%) was a sign of the Milanese really occupying a spot in the top echelons of the discipline. Joining Israel Start-Up Nation should give him continued space to launch next year.

The Maybe Forget About Me Tier

Fernando Gaviria — More ups and downs from the oft-injured Colombian. I guess he could put it all together one of these days, he’s still a mere 27, but am no longer waiting.

CYCLING-FRA-PARIS-TOURSPhoto by GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP via Getty Images

Arnaud Demare — Now 30, Demare’s career as a sprinter seem to have given way to a pretty awesome career as a classics rider. So sure, you can forget about him coming around Jakobsen at the Tour or whatever, but his last two starts included second in Paris-Bourges and a win at Paris-Tours, so you can’t forget about him in a lot of other races we care about.

Niccolò Bonifazio — Basically a poor man’s Demare.

Davide Ballerini — A younger Bonifazio? Two sprint wins in Provence mix nicely with his Omloop victory. I don’t know what he is, besides a very useful guy.

British Cycling National Road Championships 2021 - Road Race - LincolnPhoto by Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images

The Next Wave

Ethan Hayter — Best of the kids, though I would have to spend some time watching film to sort out which of the five wins were truly bunch sprints. I believe his profile isn’t pure fastman as much as classics guy with a fast finish — the Boonen package.

Alberto Dainese — I don’t really have an opinion on these other youngsters that’s based on watching; all I have here are numbers. He’s heading into his age 24 season and got in the mix pretty consistently last year.

Jordi Meeus — Another 1998 kid, former U23 Belgian champ, he got hot at the end of the season and won Paris-Bourges, along with some other close calls. With Bennett coming back to Bora (and Sagan out), he should have a chance to make some noise in ‘22.

Vincenzo Albanese — Two years older and maybe doesn’t belong on this list.

Missing from the list are Kooij and Dekker, Groenewegen’s supposed replacements at Jumbo, but they had scant results to date. Keep an eye on them though.

*****

Overall, I’d conclude that we could be in for a really exciting season of sprints next year. There is both quality and depth in the fields — in theory, and whether everyone stays healthy is always a problem. But you have up to ten riders you could call potentially dominant sprinters. The guys on that list are young, old, and prime. They are a bit bunched in Belgium, not surprisingly, but otherwise spread around to the strong teams. There is plenty of drama and intrigue to go along. Even the generational talent guy isn’t any sort of foregone conclusion to win. I doubt we will see a coronation this year but am ready for a constantly shifting high-level competition.


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