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2010 Year in Review, Part 1: Racing & Fanhood

– The rule isn’t clear about these year-end reviews — whether they’re best done at the end of said year, or better kept under wraps ‘til the new year comes in. With that one solitary bit of uncertainty in mind, I hereby bring you an otherwise utterly self-confident act of judge, jury & executioner, a.k.a. our 2010 in review. We offer it up in two parts. Part 1 pertains to the year of racing and fanhood. Part 2, coming next week, pertains to product and bike industry stuff.

Crash of the year: Dwars door Vlaanderen. Hell hath no fury like an endo’d Sergei Ivanov.

Sponsorship Intrigue of the Year: The least known of the pro bike race minor leagues is the UCI Asia Tour. While we’ve all heard of the Tour de Langkawi (it’s their bright beacon of global relevancy, not unlike the use of Tour of California on the US calendar), you’ve probably never heard of one of the smaller teams on the Asia Tour: Tabriz Petrochemical. The team is based in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and half the riders are Iranian. In 2010 they earned 26 UCI victories, of which 20 were outside of Iran. And of those 20, 15 were by Iranians. Who ever knew?

TabrizAll of that to say, we were intrigued to learn that for 2011 our beloved Ridley Bicycles will be their bike sponsor and, related to that fact, it was brought to our attention that they were potentially interested in getting an American on their team. (No mention if their specific preference was for a racer on the MIT cycling team with a major in Nuclear Engineering.) Three cheers for globalization!

Race of the year: I’ll confess my weakness for rain and mud, and if a race lacked it, then it didn’t make the finalist list. Cataclysmic weather is like bike racer kryptonite: It neutralizes motivation in a way that fitness-related suffering can’t. As bike racers we live a constant lie: It doesn’t hurt that bad, it doesn’t hurt that bad. Get hit by a springtime typhoon: The fiery interior monologue quickly dims.

Two of the more cataclysmic days of 2010 include Stage 7 of the Giro d’Italia and the most prestigious post-April one day race, the Tour of Lombardy. Both warranted the use of arks rather than bikes, both suggested that post-race incineration of clothes and bikes would make more sense than attempting to wash them. The racing was scintillating, but the weather is what made both days eternal.

The winner of the race of the year, however, goes to a different race: Stage 2 of the Three Days of De Panne. It, too, was a personal Barbarossa for all involved. Frigid grey, mud everywhere, with Belgium’s suicidally depressed cows lining the road. The essential distinction, though, is that unlike the Giro or a Classic, nobody gets amped up for De Panne. In testament to its fundamental awkwardness, it’s a stage race thrown into the heart of Spring Classics season. It’s value is narrow in that it exists only to sharpen everyone’s fitness prior to the Ronde and Roubaix.

Turning oneself inside-out with pain in the Giro or Lombardy is something that any of us would do: Races come no more glamorous than these. But this sort of glamour is rare. Most bike racing (whether you’re a PRO or a Cat 4) is more like De Panne: Slogging, lonely, and when the weather explodes and/or crashes erupt left and right, you’re left with the existential crisis common to all bike racers: What the fuck am I doing with my life? To watch De Panne is to feel something uncommon: An authentic kinship with the PROs. Glory is a mystery to most of us. Doubt and lack of distinction is who we are.

Embarrassment of the Year: The Team Pegasus debacle. The lightning-quick rise and fall of the team appears to be a function of the whimsy of one George N. Gillett, Jr. The chatter we’ve heard is that his son Foster is into bikes, which sparked the original talks between Pegasus bossman Chris White and Gillett.

Team Pegasus backgroundOn the surface the connection between Gillett and Pegasus makes logical sense. Gillett’s success in business has been significant. He has a history of big investments in sporting organizations — Liverpool FC, the Montreal Canadiens, as well as Richard Petty Motorsports. But beneath this shiny surface is a more rough & tumble reality. Gillett seems to have a history of making all-too-public potential sporting acquisitions without having the entire means (or the certain intent) to see things through.

In 2000 he unsuccessfully courted the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche. According to reports, he then showed interest in up to 4 other NHL teams. In 2008 he started then pulled the plug on a bid for a Montreal Major League Soccer franchise.

And worse, perhaps, was his experience of ownership once he saw an acquisition all the way through. His experience with Liverpool went from bad to outright terrifying — with the worst of the public excoriation coming right as the Pegasus hype was hitting its peak. It’s reasonable to suspect that Gillett was getting his fill of public attention and that this, along with his knack for empty flirtation with team ownership, played no small part in having him bail on Pegasus.

Chris White of Pegasus wasn’t a victim. Rather he’s guilty of having dealt with his riders, the UCI, and the press in an entirely incapable manner. His delusions of grandeur extended all the way to the bitter end, where even after he admitted that the team was collapsing, he made self-sure statements that, in fact, a white knight was coming to save the day. We were told that this financial savior, in fact, wasn’t a moneyed individual or a corporation, but rather it was White’s loony concept of ‘mateship’ where fans would chip in money to fund the team (isn’t this how the Rapha Condor team was run a few years back?) — a clear indicator of his overestimation of how much the bike world cared about him and his phantom team.

Charlie Wegelius, from Timm KollnPersonality of the year: Charlie Wegelius. In 2010 he raced for Team Omega Pharma Lotto and kept a fascinating blog on the Canyon Bikes website. At times humorous, at times fraught with despondency — the complexities of PRO life were vivid. Combine the blog with the pages devoted to him in Timm Kolln’s book ‘Peloton’ and you end up with a guy any of us would want to have a beer with.

Did you ever read ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Somerset Maugham? Do you remember the crushing scene where Philip Carey wraps himself in faith that God would cure him of his club foot? And do you remember how — in the span of just a few bitter pages — faith turns out to be little more than ‘a practical joke’? Some of the things Wegelius says seems to be straight from the Book of Maugham —

‘…I’d love to win a race, but the reality is that you just get used to not winning. At a certain point you stop thinking about it, because otherwise it’s like waiting for Christmas every day, and it never comes.’

Photo of the year: Stage 9 of the Tour de France. Testimony to the power of defeat. Testimony to the power of team.

aprica_mortirolo_18Climb of the year: The stuff of novices — why is it we must re-learn these things every year? Purposely not bringing food on a long ride, for example, is not a sane way to diet. 5 days of intervals in the span of one week is no way to build fitness. And believing that the toughness of a climb is simply a function of length & gradient is another bit of foolishness. 2010 was another year to remember that the true degree of difficulty is a function of your current state of fatigue and mental outlook. In other words, one person’s hors categorie might not match somebody else’s. I discovered this on what was, for me, the hardest climb I’ve ever suffered over — a forgettable thing in Italy called the Passo di Santa Cristina. In the 2010 Giro d’Italia it was a throwaway 20 minutes of racing. When I rode it a month beforehand, it almost made me quit the sport forever.

Blog of the Year: It’s amazing that blogs even exist any more. Facebook and Twitter are the Fast Food Nation of thought. Who wouldn’t rather take 15 seconds to spout something off instead of the hours it takes to write a decent blog entry? Bloggers are the resistance, and before they get taken into custody in the name of Vapid Über Alles they need props while they’re still with us.

Honorable mention goes to Ciclismo Espresso, Elcyclista, and Velogogo. Life’s Rich Pageant gets no richer than being a bike race fan, and these three sites go deeply and esoterically into the pageantry.

One finalist is Joe Lindsey’s Boulder Report. In terms of writing quality & the ability to present a thesis and effectively carry it through 1,000 words, he’s the best cycling journalist in North America. If he writes it, you need to read it. The only bummer is that he’s tied at the hip to the Almighty Fuddy Duddy, Rodale Press, aka the publishers of Bicycling Magazine. This probably puts editorial & investigative restraints on him, but clearly he has the skills and the connections to reveal things about the cycling industry (industry, pro racing, you name it) that needs daylight but isn’t being exposed. In an ideal world Joe would figure out a way to unhitch himself from Rodale, and turn the Boulder Report into the Talking Points Memo of bike. The cycling industry needs a site like that. Joe, if you’re tempted, we’d buy advertising on it FYI.

#23 Himself, courtesy of FreedarkoAnother finalist is Cyclocosm. His postings are thoughtful, but where he’s untouchably brilliant is when he gets his graphic artistry in full effect. His ‘100 Years of Giro Winners’ and ‘Paris RouBingo’ represents the best English-language pop art related to bike racing. If Cyclocosm wanted to, he could become what FreeDarko is to the NBA, where the written insights are good, but the artwork is divinely inspired. That being said, he’s not our Blog of the Year for a couple of reasons, most importantly being that he simply doesn’t post enough. 13 posts in the last 4 months is too little.

Our third finalist is Whit Yost’s Pavé. In terms of year-round coverage of the Euro race scene, it gets no better than this. He covers the Classics as keenly as the Grand Tours as keenly as ‘cross season. His insight combined with his daily (at a minimum) posting frequency makes him a must-read for the well-read bike race fan.

Final finalist: Podium Insight. Lyne Lamoureux doesn’t get blog of the year, but she does get consideration as ‘Saint of the Year’ for the fact that she seemingly spent the entire year on the road following the US Domestic Pro scene. Podium Insight is the undisputed king (queen?) of photography & race results for the US scene. Her love of the sport is obvious and she makes VeloNews look like Ranger Rick in the process. Where she shines most is in the photo dump she does for each race she attends.

The winner proved to be an easy choice in 2010. No blog is remotely as wide-ranging, well-researched, and thought-provoking as The Inner Ring. He clearly knows bike racing inside and out, and his sporting analysis is always a superb read. But where The Inner Ring shines most is in revealing how the machinations of the sport intersect with business, politics, and society. His most memorable posts pertained to (believe it or not) the Kazakh government and Wikileaks, as well as the impending cost increases in the use of French gendarmerie for race-day road closures and the impact this might have on the race calendar. The Inner Ring is serious journalism from the perspective of someone clearly well connected with the Euro bike mafia. It’s brilliant stuff and it comes out daily (if not more often), which is why it’s our Blog of the Year for 2010.

Thorncrown ChapelDomestic Race of the Year: There’s no getting around the grimness of the US race scene. Outside of the Tour of California, races are vanishing left and right. We’re not just talking about lofty ones like Tour of Missouri, but smaller mainstays of the NRC calendar (as well as upstart events) are dying from a lack of sponsorship cash. It’s not strictly a function of the economy, but there’s been an upswell in cycling events with a better ROI for sponsorship dollars — Levi’s Granfondo, other Granfondos, and the l’Etape at the Tour of California all come to mind. It’s easy to worry that road racing is going the way of MTB racing in the US, i.e. it’s losing its status as the main inlet for high-intensity participation in the sport.

Doomsaying aside, there are still bright spots on the US calendar, our favorite of which is the Joe Martin Stage Race in Fayetteville, AR. We love it because Northwest Arkansas in springtime is phenomenal in its mountainous beauty. We love it because the wickedness of the climbing punishes negative racing. We love it because in an era of domestic race decrepitude, the organization is sharpening and the commitment of the sponsors is ever-growing. And we love it because the stages are within a short drive of our favorite building in maybe the whole world: Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs .

Don’t let the word ‘Chapel’ scare you off. If serenity could have a physical manifestation, this would be the place. Behold it, it begs contemplativeness, not the noise of proselytization. Fay Jones won an AIA Gold Medal in 1991 for Thorncrown, and in doing so they said —

‘…Thorncrown Chapel is elemental — a man-made temple married to the woodland. It rises with authority of nature in the Arkansas forest from a stone foundation to wood columns and layered branches to folded roof. In plan more than a single room, in form no more than a gabled shed, the small building draws visitors with the magnetic, irresistible force of truth. What Whitman calls ‘primal sanity,’ simultaneously rational and intuitive, integrates building with site, ornament with structure, and structure with form. This harmoniously unified masterpiece is arguably among the twentieth century’s great works of art.’

Moral Construct of the Year: Honorable Mention #1: Anger out-of-sync of the thing that arouses it.

Honorable Mention #2: Presumption that we’re in a position to judge.

The winner: Mea Culpa. We got it from Ricco. We got it from DiLuca. We got it in spades from riders who raced in the ’95-’05 decade, where everyone tied off like Jim Carroll and the long-overdue collective recognition of its ubiquity made the admissions easier to let out.