Tough Times in Cycling

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10/21/2013| 3 comments
by Neil Browne
Tough Times in Cycling - One rider tries to secure a contract while another symbolically cuts away from it Fotoreporter Sirotti

Tough Times in Cycling

One rider tries to secure a contract while another symbolically cuts away from it.

I was reminded of something when I saw the photo on the cover of the book “Wheelman: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever.” It is taken from his crash at the 2010 Amgen Tour of California. The day before the crash, which caused him to drop out of the race, Floyd Landis’ “leaked” email disclosed team-wide doping within the Postal Team. The morning of stage 5 Armstrong stood outside the RadioShack team bus and said the now infamous phrase to the press scrum, “We like our word. We like where we stand and we like our credibility.”

Armstrong crashed later in the stage and received stitches in his elbow and cheek. However, before he climbed into the team car and abandoned, Armstrong tried to continue. He had a rolling conversation with team director Johan Bruyneel on what his options were: finish the stage and evaluate the damage or quit immediately. All of this was captured by a videographer working for Bicycling Magazine. They had a cameraman in the passenger seat and he got it all. I saw the footage, just once, and it portrayed Armstrong as confused and not knowing what to do next. I don’t blame Armstrong - he’d taken a good fall to the ground and was bleeding from multiple locations. If you had seen the recent Frontline story “League of Denial” and knowing the damage that can be done to the brain you might think the RadioShack captain had suffered a concussion.

The video was posted on Bicycling Magazine’s website, but was soon removed. I was told by someone working for Bicycling they had removed it because they were getting heat from RadioShack. As we know, Bicycling was tight with the Armstrong camp and you can’t bite the hand that’s giving you pageviews.

Initially I thought that footage was filed away like the Lost Ark of the Covenant from the Indiana Jones movie. However, thanks to the hive mind of Twitter (and specifically @Dimspace) the YouTube footage of that moment was found and it is posted on YouTube. It’s fascinating to watch as Johan Bruyneel is trying to decide what to do. You know in the back of his mind he’s wondering how this will affect Armstrong’s Tour de France preparation.

Why Horner Doesn’t Have a Contract

We all know these are challenging economic times and as a result professional cycling teams, like Euskaltel-Euskadi, have been forced to disband and others like Saxo Bank were scrambling for additional sponsors (their title sponsor Saxo Bank stepped up with additional funds). This has left a glut of top ranked cyclists - truly a buyers’ market. However, you’d think that if you’d just won a grand tour you wouldn’t have to search too long to find a fat contract for the following year.

Chris Horner also thought that and I don’t blame him. Riders have sewn up a contract renewal with a lot less on their palmarès. Sure, they may have had to take an 80% reduction in their salary, but these are tough times. So it didn’t come as a surprise to me that Trek Factory Team didn’t extend Horner’s contract. They have jumped onto the Fabian Cancellara bandwagon and secured his signature for 2014. Also, they kept the Schleck brothers, which I would bet my bottom dollar they got at a huge discount.

The word on the street is the recent Vuelta winner is asking for a million dollars a year. In contrast to football, baseball, or basketball, a million bucks is chump change. LeBron James probably has that rolling around under the seat of his Bentley. In cycling, and especially this year, that type of money is hard to find. There’s also the awkward Reasoned Decision letter from Levi Lepheimer’s testimony. As I’ve written before there’s a redacted name (known as Rider 15) that is speculated to be Chris Horner. Horner in a brief phone conversation with Cyclingnews wouldn’t deny the claim and instead said he had to get off the phone as he was driving. Velonews followed up with Horner but didn’t ask that question. In Horner’s defense he has denied doping and published his blood values from this year’s Vuelta to back that up. That’s a gutsy move by Chris as it leaves the interpretation of his blood work open to everyone.

Sure enough in a recent Velonation story anti-doping expert Robin Parisotto raises some questions about Horner’s blood values. Parisotto doesn’t say exactly what is suspicious about the blood values as he doesn’t want to tip off people looking to beat the blood passport system. However, he does question why Horner’s hemoglobin, which starts to decrease as the Vuelta wore on (normal), starts to return to baseline in the third week (not normal). He tells Velonation that he would request further examination of Horner’s blood. Not a smoking gun of doping, but if you’re a team manager with limited funds, do you want to take that risk?

Finally there’s the age factor. We’ve been told ad nauseam about Horner’s age - he’ll be 42 years old next season. Again, if you’re a manager do you risk a guy with hundreds of thousands of race miles on his body or go with a younger rider with potential?

It’s these scenarios that are holding up Horner from getting a contract - a contract that he deserves. There is no concrete proof that he doped during the Vuelta a Espana and the blood values, according to Parisotto, look suspicious, but are far from damning.

In the end I’m confident Chris will get a contract, just not at the dollar amount he thinks he deserves. There’s too much unexplained baggage which could lead to a public relations disaster. Maybe he’s not doping during this current phase of his career, but while he was on Saunier Duval maybe it’s discovered he was? That said, some team will take a chance on him and perhaps Chris can ride out the last years of his professional career with his head held high.

Cutting Away From The Past

One rider that did call it a day was American Christian Vande Velde. He’s the man, with his fourth place finish at the Tour de France, who can be credited for motivating Armstrong to return to racing. Vande Velde took out an electric saw and cut his Cervelo road bike in half in front of a cheering crowd. It was a symbolic gesture signifying his retirement from racing.

It had been a hard career, but one that will unfortunately always be footnoted with his six month suspension for doping. Maybe that's why he cut the Cervelo in half rather than doing something useful with it. Perhaps it was a metaphor for cutting away from his past and moving onto another chapter in his life.

But as I saw the blade slice through the top tube and then the bottom, I couldn’t think of how that was a colossal waste. There are many fans who would have liked to have bought that Cervelo and perhaps the money could have been donated to help the Colorado flooding victims, a junior program in his hometown of Chicago, or just about anything. It would have been a better way to punctuate his career - by doing something positive in return rather than destroying a piece of equipment that served him so well all these years.

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It's LeBron James, not James LeBron.


Neil, let me first state that I enjoy your sense of humor on Twitter and in your articles. Cycling clearly needs more humor. Also, you have the analytical ability to think outside the box. I liked the article that you wrote comparing overage of the America's Cup Race with the typical coverage TV Coverage.

Regarding this article, I think it was inappropriate for Christian Vande Velde to saw the bicycle in half. After this act became public, it was claimed that the bike was greatly damaged. I don't buy this. I think the bike could have been repaired and auctioned off etc.

Regarding the Lance part, I understand that you were personally hurt financially by him. His actions towards you were very reprehensible. It is my hope that you have recovered financially from his actions. I don't believe that you wrote anything inappropriate above regarding Lance Armstrong. Let's face it, Lance is the elephant in the room. Articles about him get many clicks on the web. I think that we are all trying to figure him out.

Larry T.|

If VandeVelde wanted to saw his bike in half, who cares? It's NOT like it was some irreplaceable piece of artisan craftsmanship. If he sawed up an original Masi or DeRosa, THEN I'd be on the verge of outrage!