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.

The Art of Noise

The Thriller in Manila it was not. And though some “correspondents” would like to make it out to be it was far from being Anatoly Karpov versus Garry Kasparov. I’m talking about the last 5 km of yesterday’s stage of the Tour de France. In particular the “attack” made by Chris Froome which put his teammate Bradley Wiggins into trouble off the back of the leading group of contenders. A lot has been made of this move, the subsequent pressing of earpiece by Froome and the interview he gave immediately after the stage. Gripping and intriguing it certainly was, but there seems to be an appetite to turn every twist and turn into a Machiavellian subplot.

Of course differences within teams is nothing new. The 2009 Tour saw the Contador and Armstrong destroy the Astana team. 1997 witnessed Jan Ullrich dethrone his teammate Bjarne Riis whilst also chasing the green jersey for Eric Zabel which, as an article in Procycling magazine illustrates, created 3 teams of 3 under one banner. And of course there is the ultimate internecine battle between Lemond and Hinault which Richard Moore covers beautifully in Slaying the Badger.  Whilst this has the makings of such a battle, from the events of this Tour so far it still lacks much of the background which those others had.

Some argue this was Froome putting his marker down for leadership of the team.  Despite stating that he riding for Wiggins following his own stage 7 win and reiterating this yesterday correspondents – both professional and amateur – have taken to reading into his words and body language to suggest that there is frustration at having to play second fiddle. A second place in last year’s Vuelta is somehow the justification for the conspiracy theories. But one Vuelta does not a Tour winner make. Take into account Wiggin’s return to racing from a broken collarbone in that race and his superb form this season combined with Froome’s own fragile health since Spain and the equation being posed by some starts to look slightly lopsided. The most astute observation I have seen so far comes from my friend and Real Peloton’s Steve Trice in a Twitter conversation with Matt Rendell:

We don’t know how much Froome benefits from Wiggo bearing leader’s responsibility & attention. Stepping up to no. 1 is a big step…Being team leader is like in a sprint – you don’t know how strong your legs are until you leave the slipstream and take the wind.

I’ve not seen that in the reports I’ve read so far.

Over exuberance by the younger teammate? A coup d’etat at La Toussuire? A simple error of judgement in the heat of the race? Only Froome will know for sure. But I have a small theory of my own and it is all based on noise.

Anybody who has ever been to or ridden in a race will know how it is an assault on all the senses. Stand by the side of the road when the Tour of Britain whizzes past and the sights, the sounds, the smells all collide. So imagine being in the midst of that, on the other end of a thousand shouting spectators, pursued by mankini wearing self-publicists, dodging motorbikes and cars whilst trying to do your job. Workplace communications are never perfect at the best of times but this office is open plan to the extreme and instructions can be misheard and missed. When the boss can’t be heard and/or doesn’t respond you make what you think is the best decision and deal with the consequences later. This is the art of living with the noise. Maybe this is what happened, but as I said, none of us will ever really know.

The second part of my theory revolves around the reliance on race radios. As the riders are more accustomed to the input from the radio, so perhaps they adapt their behaviour and in so doing become more complacent? It is another noise and one which takes over (some of) the riders. Froome’s attack yesterday might well have been to help not hinder Wiggins, a response to earlier attacks from Wiggins’ rivals. And maybe he was waiting to be told what to do? Based on the pictures we saw of him alternating between earpiece and mic did the remote control not work? Not that this is the only time radios might actually be to blame. Whilst the first week crashes were blamed on various causes from climbers to road furniture and finally over-enthusiastic amateur photographers, I wonder if the ability of the professional peloton to work together and warn each other of dangers has been lost. Ride with your local club and there are shouts within the bunch to warn of imminent dangers. My theory is that riders have become to reliant on someone telling them what to do, when and how that the basics of racing are possibly dying. I’d be interested in the thoughts of others about this.

Whilst we are on the topic of noise, the external cacophony of armchair experts has been added to by so-called “Sky WAGs” Twitter-spat. Of course I am excited that there is a British rider with a real chance of winning the Tour de France, I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But these posts are trying to be as objective as is possible in commenting on these events. Earlier in the week I indicated the discomfort I have with some of the noise on Twitter and unfortunately the exchanges between Cath Wiggins and Michelle Cound take this to a new level. It is quite understandable for both to have intense feelings when watching the action but many is the time MrsAB has returned home from work, told me what has happened and I have wanted to vent my spleen to someone. I don’t, however. Please Cath and Michelle, you are intelligent people, let’s keep this “in house” if we must, you’re not Coleen and Victoria and I’m sure you’ll never want to be.

The story is so familiar: a potential British success undermined by both British fans and from those within. Could we not avoid the mistakes that other sports have made in this respect?

Blue Sky Thinking

Following yesterday’s blog I was engaged in a few discussions on Twitter about yesterday’s incidents in the Tour de France and most particularly Bradley Wiggins abandon.  Having posted the piece I can see how it may have been perceived by some as being cold and disingenuous to those caught up in misfortune. This is far from what I intended. Like many in the UK my best wishes go out to Brad on what is so often seen as a straightforward cycling injury but is obviously a major blow to him.  Let’s hope he has a speedy recovery.  At the same time there has been some interesting reporting of the spate of head injuries that riders have sustained this year which is well worth a read.

However, the main focus of this piece is what emerges from yesterday’s events: Team Sky’s focus on a GC leader and Mark Cavendish’s reliance on wholly committed team to provide a train for his sprint finish. The two are very poignantly linked at this time. (I’m also thankful to William Fotheringham’s Guardian report for prompting the thinking.)

When Wiggins crashed 5 riders of Team Sky who were near of behind him stopped as would probably be expected in order to pace him back into the bunch, the assumption always that the fallen will remount imminently. The TV images showed the riders waiting. And waiting. And waiting. For those of us watching it seemed futile, but road decisions have to be made in the heat of the moment. Once it was obvious that Wiggins would not continue the 5 had to chase back.  What happens next is therefore interesting. Team Sky (be that Sean Yates, Rod Ellingworth, David Brailsford or Shane Sutton, who is unclear) made the decision to pull back their remaining 3 riders from the front group to help the pursuit.  These 3 riders included Edvald Boasson Hagen and Geraint Thomas both of whom were in top 10 positions in the General Classification.  If Wiggins had been making this pursuit too this would be more obvious a decision.  But without him, what were Team Sky doing? A lot of Twitter discussion last night was focussed on the “what if” that Wiggins might have chased back. He might have, but this is wishful thinking perhaps tempered by the fact that he is British and racing for a British team.  Looking at it objectively it seems to show that Team Sky have invested everything in one leader and, as Fotheringham suggests, look somewhat rudderless without him.  If you want to win the Tour de France this is one option, but as is now seen it is risky if Plan B hasn’t been considered. With the time splits caused by the chase Team Sky are now firmly on the back foot. I hope I’m proved wrong.

Yet it was also a good day for British cycling with Mark Cavendish’s 17th stage win in just 3.5 Tours de France. 16 of these victories have been aided by the strength and precision of HTC’s lead out train and this is critical in this discussion.  HTC’s sponsorship of Cavendish’s team ends this season, they have been running without a co-sponsor all season and the current barometer is pointing to decidedly changeable times for the team, probably its end.  Of course this has been the subject of a lot of discussion already this season and in particular it is the destination of Cavendish which has featured significantly in this.  And if HTC ceases to exist many commentators are pointing to Team Sky as his likely destination.  This is not without problem – Sky is heavily staffed by coaches who it is suggested have never understood Cavendish when they have been in charge of his development. This is dictated by a number of variables so can always change and is countered by Cavendish’s continued close working relationship with Sky road coach Rod Ellingworth. It is yesterday’s event that perhaps point to a problem in Cavendish joining Sky.  In his post race interview he thanked his entire team for their hard work on the front of the bunch throughout the stage, as the TV pictures verify.  Now, think about a scenario where 5 of those riders are left behind to look after a GC contender, leaving 2 to help Cavendish in a sprint.  Would Cavendish have won the stage? Maybe, maybe not, though he always looks more comfortable and reflects more positively on stages when he has that strong train.  It is clear that Sky in its present form are focussed almost entirely on winning the Tour overall, their resources focussed and mobilised towards this leaving stage wins to chance and circumstance.  Is that an attractive offer to the World’s best sprinter?  It would seem unlikely. Unless he was given concrete guarantees that he would have suficient support it seems this seems to be the real reason why he won’t go to Sky.

How one incident and contrasting fortunes can show the real dynamics of the transfer market in cycling.  Whilst for many people bolstering Sky to become a truly British contender is attractive, the competing interests of different specialisms and types of “win” make it very unlikely. And if we needed any indication of how a “national” focus can go wrong, just look at Katusha’s aimless Tour thus far.  Where Sky go in this Tour will be interesting to follow, as will Cavendish’s destination at the end of the season though we will all have to wait and see.

But things could be worse

Having written the piece I did yesterday reflecting on the British national road race championship, it might be easy to fall into a pessimistic mood.  So what a difference a day makes. For a start, Bradley Wiggins is quoted as being unimpressed by the tactics of his teammates in the final kilometres of the race. Even if this was tongue in cheek it shows that the race perhaps didn’t run exactly to the plan envisaged by Ellingworth pre-race.  However, we are a long way from a La Vie Claire or Astana falling out between teammates.

But the result that puts it all into perspective comes from Luxembourg. I have to admit the knowing the names of only a handful of Luxembourgish cyclists thought this may be a few fingers more than others. It should therefore come as little surprise that the title was won by a rider called Schleck. This year, breaking with what seemed to be a trend of alternation, Frank retained his title ahead of brother Andy.  The brothers crossed the line together, in the same time, riding for the same team.  Laurent Didier (rising for the Schlecks old team Saxo Bank-Sungard!) was over a minute behind with the rest of the field over 4 minutes in arrears.  We’ve seen this Schleck one-two before at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and though admittedly it was  home by a regal Phillipe Gilbert questions were already forming.  For one, it makes you wonder at the conversations between these brothers – without any disrespect I know I would be hard pushed to have convinced my brother to let me win a bike race.  And importantly in this debate it questionsthe  Luxembourgish depth to Team Leopard Trek, a squad which has been repeatedly billed by its riders, management and backers as a Luxembourg cycling project. The British national championships did highlight the depth of talent that there is in British cycling and the way it can be fostered if the right structures exist.  Team Sky highlights how a project can be developed to be internationally competitive whilst nurturing domestic talent into that arena.  These are two major positives in relation to Luxembourg and Leopard-Trek. Whilst (Swiss rider) Fabian Cancellara has indicated in this month’s Procycling magazine that Leopard is still forming and isn’t last year’s Saxo Bank team (as indicated by Didier), it is light on Luxembourgish talent purchasing and cajoling its riders from around the globe (albeit predominantly from one source – Saxo Bank-Sunguard).  Hardly a Luxembourg project and more a vehicle for the Schleck’s and their mates.  One has to wonder what good it is doing cycling in the Duchy. At least David Bralisford has got something right for all the doom-mongers.

David and Goliath?

Another year’s national championships are over across Europe with a host of familiar names donning their national colours for the next 12 months.  For fans in Britain the result saw Bradley Wiggins don the familiar white jersey with the red, white and blue bands.  On one level congratulations to Brad. As noted in the first reports from a number of media outlets it should mean the national champs jersey becomes a familiar sight in the Tour de France if Brad fulfils his and other’s expectations with a high finish. But the other story unfolds when you look down the results sheet.  Wiggins led a Team Sky 1-2-3-4 at the end. In fact, the decisive break of the day saw six Team Sky riders get away with a myriad of lone representatives from UK-based pro teams.  Is this good for the sport?

For those who have established the Team Sky project its is yet another sound endorsement of the hard work.  On the basis of this result Britain’s best riders are nearly all riding for Sky (with a couple of notable exceptions who may or may not arrive in the closed season).  For David Brailsford, Rod Ellingworth, Sean Yates and co, this might be seen as confirmation that they got their signings right and that the team’s attention to detail continues to develop this talent. Furthermore it is visibly places British cycling amongst the other European nations on the world’s top stage. The times that the national champion has been seen at the Tour de France in recent years have been few. Yet here we are in the second year of Team Sky’s existence and they will feature the British champion at the Tour de France for the second year running.  Just as Geraint Thomas showed off the jersey with panache over the cobbles of Stage 3 in last year’s Tour, I can’t imagine that Wiggins won’t want to make sure the jersey is shown off to its full this year.

But taking a step back from the world of Team Sky and the picture for British cycling becomes a little more complex.  The domination of one team in the national championships suggests that there is a widening gap between Britain’s sole ProTeam and the host of UK-based UCI Continental teams.  If you look at the race diet of those 4 riders from Sky who made up the podium-plus-one (Wiggins, Kennaugh, Thomas, Stannard) it has involved a host of World Tour events including the Spring Classics, several 2.HC stages races and one Grand Tour. Compare this with the racing of UK-based teams and there is a vast difference in experience and preparation. At the upper ends there are teams such as Rapha-Condor-Sharp and Endura Racing who have a varied and international range of races under their belt already. For example, Rapha-Condor-Sharp and Team Endura have had very positive excursions to France this Spring racing against Pro-Continental opposition.  However, their successes, without completely ignoring the hard work of their British team-mates, have largely come through their overseas riders.  Only Kristian House’s overall win in the Tour of South Africa stands out as different.  The presence of overseas riders is one issue which can be debated in this context as potentially undermining British riders but this places them in the same boat as Team Sky.  Just as Brailsford wants an international squad to develop a range of talents through experience, the same is true for John Herety at Rapha-Condor-Sharp and Brian Smith at Endura.  What this might better suggest is the resource gap that is growing and the need for a new team (or teams) to develop to bridge that gap.

To this end there are two issues which need to be addressed. They are not mutually inclusive yet arguably they are reliant to some extent on each other.  First, there is the need to develop a British based squad at Pro-continental level.  At the moment we have a situation where there is nothing between the Premiership and League One of British cycling. Whilst Barloworld might be pointed to by some as notionally performing this role it never fulfilled a function as a bridge for enough British riders and its ultimate demise showed a lack of sustainability for such an international project (British-Italian-South African).  The step up would provide access to bigger and better races giving riders the opportunity to develop.  Of course this takes resources. Whilst a British UCI Continental team might exist on a budget below £1m, the jump to Pro-continental would require a budget of between £2m and £2.5m.  The question is where do these come from.  Finding a lucrative backer such as Sky even in good economic times is a hard sell.

The second element relates to the racing calendar. For a long time British pros have relied on a mixed diet of criteriums and weekend Premier Calendar races.  Looking back at the history of British pros this gave Britain a distinct advantage in an otherwise under-developed area of world cycling, the Criterium. But when the British Pros played against their continental counterparts in longer road races the results were disappointing.  Today’s national championships are perhaps this scenario playing out again. For all that we have Rapha-Condor-Sharp and Team Endura racing abroad, much of the remainder is made up of weekend warriors for whom a diet of Premier Calendar, Tour Series and Elite Circuit Series races does not expose them to the next level of racing. Without the budgets to go abroad the next best thing is the attraction of harder opposition to these shores and that requires improved events.  Yet again this is not an easy ask. British Cycling has already highlighted the difficulties of red tape in putting on cycling events on public roads and even the Tour of Britain has to negotiate access, closure and improvement of routes on an authority-by-authority basis (see this month’s Procycling for a good piece by Graham Jones).  Expanding racing in this way will take guts, patience and hard work as well as money but perhaps now is the best time to start.  What we have should be a springboard not the final stage and forthcoming opportunities – the Olympics, possible Tour de France Grand Departs – should be used as foundations not one offs.

So in one way David has become Goliath through Team Sky, a transition which is still in progress.  Congratulations to all at Team Sky.  On another level David is in danger of forgetting his roots.  If the Team Sky project is truly to be a success it needs the continued development of the domestic sport and an emergence of a “Championship” team if the gap is not to widen further.  Putting all your eggs in one basket might  make sense at the time but we know what can happen when you trip up.