Feeling let down?

Ask MrsAB and it is an understatement to say I was disappointed on Saturday afternoon. A hard day’s work photographing a wedding and I receive a text with the news that Mark Cavendish had not won the Olympic road race. Not only that but the gold medalist is a cyclist who, despite his panache, is clouded by controversy. No, I was pretty dejected. But if I was, imagine being in the shoes of the five Team GB riders who put their all into that day’s racing. And then imagine being told that despite working so hard and against the spoiling tactics (for want of a better phrase) of your main opponents, you are labelled failures. And this, less than a week after one of those riders had won a certain French bike race, one had finished second and another had capped off 3 stage wins with his 4th in a row on a Parisian Boulevard. Fickle barely does this justice.

So let’s look at this from two perspectives of how to let down your nation.

The first is the way that teams rode the race. The British quintet rode with one thing in mind: getting Mark Cavendish to the line in a position to unleash his trademark sprint. They rode on the front of the race for most of the day and once the break had gone worked tirelessly to bring this back. In doing so they were helped little by others in the race. Put quite bluntly, some nations chose to lose the race themselves so that Cavendish didn’t win  either. If I was a fan from one of those nations rather than gleefully celebrating the disappointment of your opponent I would be feeling slightly let down by my team’s negative tactics. But that is bike racing, of which more in a moment.

The second persepctive is through the eyes of our own nation’s media. In the days leading up to the race Mark Cavendish had been portrayed as not just an odds-on favourite for the gold medal but a dead cert. How the press fuel the fires of confidence. Even the IOC President was reported as wanting Cavendish to win. No pressure there then.

Criticism of Mark Cavendish & Team GB

Voluminously negative headlines

So what happens when we “lose”. WalesOnline described Cavendish as a “flop”. The Sun’s well known cycling commentator Steven Howard claimed “the much-hyped home road race team miscalculated woefully to ruin our first big Golden dream”. The Daily Mail’s take: “In the morning they had already hung the gold medal around his neck. By the afternoon Mark Cavendish had sloped away from The Mall, his Olympic dreams in tatters.”  Build them up and throw them down.

Yet the BBC gets top marks for letting us down the most.  “Cavendish and co disappoint in road race” was the headline of the BBC Sports Editor’s blog piece. Cycling has consistenly delivered, he say, but “something clearly went wrong for the ‘Dream Team’ on the 250km circuit”. For us cyclists there was no one thing that went wrong, the race unfolded and the games within games within games unravelled. For those new to cycling it looked messy and that’s preceisley what a bike race is. But our journalists are more used to reporting on the success of our teams who play in more simple sports like football: two teams on a pitch defending one goal whilst attacking the other. Only cycling isn’t like that. Follow this analogy and you have upward of five or six teams and goals on the pitch, you know you have to strike at one and defend another but you aren’t sure which is which. And then they throw a few more balls at you to make life “interesting”. That’s cycle racing. Add in the weird alliances formed by differential team sizes and having your normal work colleagues riding for the other sides and it is clear to see the complexity of this “game”. I doubt David Bond has paid much attention to these complexities as they get in the way of a suitably critical and pithy piece.

Rather than report on the facts and provide measured and informed analysis, our press in large parts chose to drive heightened expectation and blame individuals rather than events when this failed to materialise. It seems some of our journalists have a lot to learn when it comes to sport, just as some of their colleagues have much to learn when it comes to everyday life. The success of the Olympics is measured in precious metal collections rather than effort, another colonial push, another expected right. A nation is left expectant and let down when it fails to deliver. Of course we want success but let’s savor that when it happens rather than before. And if it doesn’t instead of blaming our hard working athletes, the decision of officials, the course on which they ride or even the weather, let’s accept that this is sport, it is life, that we cannot plan its every turn.

The only people who have let us down are those sections of the press who build our athletes up and drop them when they fail to meet those expectations. Under a veneer of respectability they act like cyber trolls but get away with it unless we begin to ignore their callous calls. Whilst I feel disappointed by the result of this one race, I feel great pride in our riders. I just feel totally let down by our press and media – but what’s new with that?

Advertisements

Human, flesh and blood, made to make mistakes

“Once we saw that Nibali had cracked at the top of the Peyresourde, we knew we didn’t have the danger of him attacking in the final so it was at that point that I knew it was pretty much over. We rode away from the rest of the field and I lost concentration. I was thinking of lots of different things at that time. Chris wanted more but the fight had gone from me at that point…All the way up the last climb I almost had tears in my eyes.”

And so explained why after accelerating up the final climb of stage 17 of the 2012 Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins looked weak, Chris Froome looked frustrated and the Twiteratti exploded largely with the British disease of knocking a guy on the verge of history. The fact of the matter is Bradley Wiggins once again showed he is human. Thank goodness for that.

For many years cycling fans have grown used to the infallable, imperial march of Tour champions. Last year’s race together with this have thrown up leaders who have differed from this script. In comparison to a certain American, Cadel Evans and Bradley wiggins have looked strong but fallable. They have not treated winning the Tour as their right, they have looked and been seen to have their weaknesses yet they have ridden through them, battled and shown courage, determination, dignity and respect. Above it all, they have not only looked human, their interviews have been human too. Witness Wiggins’ interview last week.

Last year’s winner Cadel Evans looked fragile in his win then and this year has seen his fair share of misfortune. At the end of stage 16 he sat on the steps of his BMC team bus and spoke candidly to the reports crammed outside:

I had a few stomach issues just before the race … when it’s an hour or two hours before the race there is not a lot you can do. I didn’t think it would affect me in the race, but obviously that’s not my normal level and it’s pretty much Tour de France over for me.

Anybody who has ever had “stomach issues” – and you know what we mean by that –  knows what Evans must be going through. To ride a bike any distance let alone up 4 Pyrenean climbs in the heat of a French summer doesn’t bare contemplation when you are in that state. Fallable? Foolish? Probably both but that’s what makes him human.

For Wiggins there has been a genuine humility when interviewed, shown in his respect for the race traditions, for the racing and especially for his tea. Anybody who has read In Pursuit of Glory will understand that for Wiggins the team environment matters. In the past, being in the wrong team has exposed Wiggins’ weaknesses and put him in his comfort zone on the track. Now in Team Sky he recognises the value of his team and the team ethos that has developed over time,

We are a close group and we have been all year. That’s why we’re in this position now. We’ve gone out there each day and proved on the road that there isn’t a problem.

And on Monday he praised the team for their collective efforts.

This is a star team, not a team of stars. What we do well is we race as a team. We’ve done that all year. I am surrounded by incredibly talented bike riders… We are a close group and we have been all year. We’ve proved on the road that there isn’t a problem.

Brian Clough would be proud. And in particular he singled out Mark Cavendish who has put aside his usual haul of stage wins and been a dedicated team mate for Wiggins’ pursuit of the Yellow jersey.

Mark has been fantastic these last two and a half weeks. He’s been so committed to my cause – to the yellow jersey – and he’s a great champion and a great friend.

And of the man who according to some tried to drop him on stage 11 and on stage 17 was accused both of making his leader look like a fool and of being held back unfairly from a second stage win?

Chris was super strong again today. He’s super excited. He’s been a fantastic team-mate during this Tour de France. For sure, one day, he’ll win the Tour and I’ll be there beside him to do it.

Watch the video of this interview, those do not come across as hollow words said because he should. Though the heat of the moment can sometimes suggest otherwise, there is a genuine respect by Wiggins for others – teammates, opponents and officials.

But Wiggins is a much more complex character, a man who I have identified with in the past and still do today. He’s a rider who has reached great heights already but who has a tendancy to knock himself down. A rider on who there are great expectations but who often thinks he has let people down. Sound familiar? It does to me. Here is a man on the verge of making history and who has quite understandably had a moment of shock and realisation. It’s not the invincibility we’ve seen from past Tour winners and to me that is a good sign for the sport.

One clear message from this year’s Tour is that, in the words of the late Roy Castle, dedication’s what you need. His outburst last weekend is borne of frustration at the lack of recognition of just how hard he has worked and the sacrifices he has made to achieve this. Wiggins’ quite rightly criticised the cult of empty celebrity,

It’s nice to be recognised for achieving something in life because so much of British culture is built on people being famous for not achieving anything. It’s nice in sport when people stop you in the street and respect you for something you have achieved.

These are the things that endear him to me. These make him a champion. Wiggins is human, he has faults but he is determined to succeed. He’s a family man, a dad who looks forward to taking his son to rugby camp after winning a Tour de France. A man who doesn’t mind if people don’t recognise him in Wigan. He wants recognition but he values his space.

What will I do if I win on Sunday? I will concentrate on the time trial of the Olympic Games and when all is over, I go back to my home, come back to reality and go and buy bread and milk.

Long may the humanisation of cycling continue. I can’t imagine some recent Tour winners even knowing where to buy bread. With 3 stages still to go I do not want to tempt fate but despite (and probably because of) his human traits Wiggins is looking good for the win in Paris. Whilst it will be great to have a British winner of the Tour it will be even better to have a champion who is an ordinary guy that most of us can identify with in some way. Allez Wiggo.

The true professional.

Professional: n. 1. A person following a profession, especially a learned profession. 2. One who earns a living in a given or implied occupation: hired a professional to decorate the house. 3. A skilled practitioner; an expert.

What does it take to be a real professional. The last week of the Tour de France has been somewhat of an eye opener for that and question over the just what it means to be a professional, let alone a cyclist who is paid to ride his bike.

Much of the focus of this debate has been the allegedly simmering tensions in the Team Sky camp. First the focus was on the lack of protection given to Mark Cavendish and the miscommunication between him and Edvald Boason-Hagen in the early flat stages but this has subsequently swung to the growing tension between Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. Or so we are led to believe. Nobody on the inside of the team has confirmed any tensions as would be expected and so the analysis has really involved reading between the lines from the outside.

Take for example Velonews’ take on the Wiggins-Froome rift. On Sunday L’Equipe published a an interview with Froome in which he stated that his riding for Wiggins was a “a very, very great sacrifice.” There is no denying that: Froome is in a purple patch of form which sees him lying in second place overall. But equally he is acknowledging that he, as a professional cyclist, has to sacrifice his own desires for the good of his employers. It may make things tense but it is the professional way of doing your job. He went on to say in the interview:

“If I feel that the Tour can be lost I will follow the best riders, be that [Cadel] Evans or [Vincenzo] Nibali, to preserve our chance and be sure of Sky’s presence.”

Velonews (shared by others implicitly if not quite as explicitly, was:

Imagine that. A top domestique hoping his leader gets dropped.

Slightly disingenuous I feel. Chris Froome’s comment could be read in that way. Equally, however, it is stating the facts of Sky’s strong position in the race: if something were to happen to Wiggins then Froome is ideally placed to ensure that the team takes the win. Again, a professional way of doing your job.  As he says, “I cannot lie to you, it’s difficult, but it’s my job.”

Which brings us onto what seems to be a vexed issue for some: that professional cycling is a job. During yesterday’s stage I spotted an exchange of tweets between various journalist during which Richard Moore – a journalist and author whose writing I have a lot of respect for – tweeted the following:

Exactly what do we want from sport? People to do job, or to pursue dreams & ambitions? #pragmatismorpanache

In some respects I am behind Moore’s statement. I despise video referees in sport: they slow the game, referees duck the decisions and importantly it removes the idea that all sports are refereed the same no matter which sports field they are played on.  However, the reason for introducing these kinds of measures is simple: money.  As more money comes into sport so the interestys of the investor need to be protected.  Sports stars benefit from this with increased salaries therefore making it possible to make a more than reasonable living as a domestique. Panache in the romantic sense was lost a long time ago, order has been increasingly placed on sport to make the outcome more controlled and palatable to the external funders.

All this talk about people doing jobs in a workplace. Really? Is that what we’re watching?

Yes, that is precisley what we are watching. At the end of the day this is precisely what professional cycling is, and it is no different from any other job. Some if the people can Chase some of their dreams some of the time. The rest are rewarded with a pay packet. The mark of a true professional is one who gets on with this. I have my doubts about some of the inferences that have made into Chris Froome’s actions and statements. Motives and explanations have been suggested where no concrete evidence exists to back them up. It is pure speculation and is disrespectful of a professional. That is the want of the press and many of its consumers. If Froome ultimately breaks from his role, decides to steal glory for himself and undermine his teammates in so doing then we can question his professionalism, For the time being is is making sacrifices and if not entirely happy he is being professional.

But for me there is one image from yesterday that encapsulates the true professional: Mark Cavendish, world champion and sent back to collect water bottles and rain jackets. Whilst he may not have liked it, he did it and his day of dreams will come around again. A professional is paid to do a job, but the true professional gets on with the job he is given.  Some who work in so-called professions would do well to consider this.

Fresh and Wild

Yesterday I saw what can best be described as a charm offensive from tourist executives in the US. A folk singer beckons us to come to the land of the free to realise our dreams. No offence intended to my US readers but this struck me as a little fake. And this was reinforced by its screening in an ad break during the Giro d’Italia. As charm offensives go, the Giro is a total success in my book – great scenery, lovely weather, enthusiastic and expressive spectators, the only thing missing is the food and drink. As you can tell, I am hooked.

My love affair with Italy has been recent, a combination of honeymoon, simple veggie friendly cooking and of course the cycling. Though Italian cycling for many years didn’t mean much to me. Of course I knew about the Giro, I’d seen reports of classics like Lombardy and Milan-San Remo but it had never featured as much as the Tour de France. Maybe that is the product of growing up in the UK and following the limited cycling coverage available. To me the Tour de France came top but the Kellogg’s Tour and, if you remember them, the Scottish Provident criteriums seemed more real even than Miguel Indurain’s tussle with Tony Rominger down the boot of Europe. To be honest, these seemed like training rides in the build up to the big event. And that’s a feeling that has taken a long time to shake. Just as I’ve previously indicated how the season seems to end by August, the Italian races were an hors d’oeuvres to the main event, the cheap support act.  But no more.

This year’s Giro d’Italia has changed my thinking for good.  With its bold selection of route and in its acceptance of which riders who will come, this year’s race has been spectacular. Whilst there has been no one stand out moment like, for example, Lemond’s final day win in the ’89 (and my first) Tour de France (yet*), the twists and turns in all aspects of the race have been intriguing. And the riders have added to this. Mark Cavendish remains in the race long after others with GC ambitions have pulled out and his continued participation in what was considered a warm up to the Tour-Olympics dominated July should be considered a mark of how good this race is. It has offered a fresh approach to racing, one made all the fresher by the absence of some of the so-called big names. Ironically this is the definition of True Racing that others merely apply as a tag.

And a significant feature of this has been the selection of wild card teams. When this selection was announced there was some outcry in Italy at the teams who were left out.  In particular the exclusion of Acqua & Sapone and previous Giro winners Danilo di Luca and Stefano Garzelli was greeted with surprise and threatened retirements. Yet the teams included have done the wildcard tag proud.

Admittedly this did not start well. Androni’s Roberto Ferrari was certainly wild in his antics on stage 3 and questions were soon asked about his inclusion and the worth of his team. But over three weeks these episodes start to pale. Whilst the pocket climbers of Androni have been conspicuous by their absence this year, Ferrari has grabbed a stage and Alessandro Di Marchi has been in 2 main moves on high mountain stages. Far from being the “who are they” team when the wildcards were announced, Team NetApp have covered almost every break in the race and in so doing covered themselves in glory and reaffirmed their selection. Despite the loss of their team leader, Filippo Pozzato, Farnese Vini have been in the attacks, had 2 stages wins and surely the moment of this year’s race when Matteo Rabottini out on his own for the day and having looked totally spent hit back at Joaquin Rodriguez’s final attack by finding, from where we can only guess, a final burst to clinch the stage. And Colnago-CSF, whilst also having been in much of the daily action, have placed Domenico Pozzovivo in the heart of the battle for the pink jersey – whilst he may not take it he certainly made the battle tougher for the others tougher at the top of the Passo Giau. These are teams who have earned their way into the Giro and when there have done their inclusion justice with their fresh and wild approach to racing.

There’s still 2 days and a bit to go in this year’s race and things may change for the worse but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the Giro d’Italia is better than the Tour de France. Whilst its big it isn’t too big to go through – and finish in – the centre of towns. Its produced racing that has been non-stop, interesting and enthralling. It has shown that great racing doesn’t always need “big names”. Whilst last year I find myself looking back on last year’s Tour in much the same way now as I felt then, I can’t help but feel that even if it is not a classic this Giro has reignited my interest in racing.

So here’s to true racing, the Italian (and with Net App, the German!) way. I’ll raise a glass of Chianti to that.

* As I write this watching the 19th stage, Sunday’s time trial could yet produce similar!

Act, Dream, Plan, Believe

Like many other cycling fans I spent yesterday sat on the sofa with the Elite Men’s World Road Race on in the background.  For me it was an enforced period of rest, laid up as I was with a throat seemingly wrapped in sandpaper and joints which felt they had been knocked about with a sledgehammer – the perils of looking after your young niece and nephews! So at times, the race was a kind of comforting wallpaper, but as with many other British cycling fans it ended with the delight of watching our first world men’s professional/elite road champion for 46 years – a fact I know has delighted one other cycling Manxman well known to this blog.

I also decided to avoid Twitter for the duration of the race. And I have to say it was much better for it. The urge to send a quick opinion bubbled but was kept in my own head. And for some this is a small lesson – we all have thoughts, we all have a right to air them but sometimes it is better to keep them in our own heads. Therefore in the run up to the race we saw opinions on the presence of Sky on GB jerseys, during the race an ongoing critique of Team GBs tactics (therein is a lesson in holding opinion until an eggy face can be avoided) and subsequently the way the course was made for sprinters and how Cav benefited from a “pro-team” set up due to the large number of GB riders from one trade team. I’m sorry folks but I’ve lost interest in most of these tired arguments.  So here’s a more considered take.

Clearly the race was made for sprinters. Whilst some nations complained, the parcours will dictate the eventual winner to a large extent as, as one of the more witty comments on Twitter pointed out, the Italians didn’t complain in Zolder when Mario Cipolini won. Not that the race was easy – whilst there were no decisive climbs, the rise to the finish in itself added interest to the sprint and the fast nature of the course made it difficult for breaks to stay away but equally brought a large bunch to the end and thus a hard race to control. That Team GB rode the race they did should be seen as a master-stroke in planning but more so a genuinely superb team effort on the part of Team GB. At times the armchair fan To accomplish great things...might have questioned the tactic to try and control the race almost alone but by 3.30pm that decision was vindicated – a brave move unseen in recent World’s.  All of which is underpinned by the bigger project, nicely summarised by Inner Ring’s blog but visually captured by Adrian Timmis’ photo. We can all have gripes with the backers of British Cycling and Britian’s own Pro-Team – Sky, BSkyB, call them what you want – but the fact is they have chosen to invest in cycling at all levels. At the top end this has paid off with track and now road success at World level. At the other end it continues to be a part of the growth in the popularity of cycling – as Richard Williams suggested this morning, bike shops are now “virtually recession‑proof”on the back of it. I’m not overly enthusiastic about the puppeteers behind this company but if they are willing to back a sport I love I’ll happily take the money.

Then there is a puerile suggestion that GB are using Team Sky to get around the trade team rules for the Worlds. In a two earlier pieces I highlighted the way in which British Cycling have successfully taken forward a focussed project to be successful in world road cycling and, in another, the contradictions that the world rankings system presents for World championship qualification.  Team GBs qualification points undoubtedly were helped by the performance of Team Sky. Yet Cav himself earned a fair share of the points and was further assisted by other non-Sky riders such as Adam Blyth of Omega Pharma-Lotto.  But lets look back at the history of this project. Richard Moore’s book on Team Sky, Sky’s the Limit, highlights how its foundations are in the Academy system set up by David Brailsford and run by Rod Ellingworth. And who was in the Academy together and the same time? Mark Cavendish, Geraint Thomas, Stephen Cummings and Ian Stannard. Add in Bradley Wiggins (whose 1.5 lap pull on the front makes up for any previous “disappearances”) as a key member of the GB track set up and 5 of the 8 riders out there yesterday had been integral to this project. Frome, Millar and Hunt all provided experience and determination.  When was the last time a national team from any nation looked so committed, focussed and together than this one yesterday.  With the intricacies and contradictions that road racing brings, Team Sky has taken a different approach in its aims and its execution. It has learnt a lot and it has developed a lot, but there is nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with a national team having a backbone from one trade team. More often than not the World’s has teams within teams, alliances between trade-teammates which undermine the national cause, something which Great Britain have not been immune. And there is nothing wrong or conspiratorial in one rider who doesn’t ride for the trade team making up the bulk of the squad to be assisted by or benefit from those who are. I’d actually say that was quite mature, whatever future rider movements suggest.  At the end of the day, the comments of all the team have indicated a huge amount of camaraderie which is something we should all look at with pride.

So this one really goes out to the doom merchants out there: for the British cycling fans it is a lesson in grumbling less and enjoying more – we’ve waited a long time for this and the guys did us proud; for the overseas fans you’re time will come, probably next year, that’s the rich merry-go-round of cycling results.  Despite feeling lousy all day yesterday, that race brought a smile to my face. But as well as Cav’s win, there are a lot of positives which can be taken from yesterday and a new chapter in cycling history, both British and International.  I’m already looking froward to next season.