Better Know a Fringe Sport: Road Cycling

Bryn Lennon

It's like 200 of that guy you always see in spandex at Starbucks, but fast.

During the summer months college sports are practically non-existent, and since new Longhorns content is hard to come by I've been given the green light to do a series of articles on sports that may not be familiar to regular BC readers. The first sport I'm going to yammer about is cycling, helped along by one of the main writers over at the excellent SBNation cycling site Podium Cafe, Jens.

Cycling is a fringe sport in America, but in other parts of the world it has a popularity that rivals the biggest sports on the planet. The Tour de France pulls viewership numbers that dwarf the Super Bowl & the top riders are superstars with endorsement deals that range in the millions. As an example, in 2012 British cyclist Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France and then a month later won Olympic gold in cycling and was knighted by the Queen in 2013. Most of England treats him like we treat Vince Young. These guys are rock stars in Spandex, which would make them like KISS, except talented. So let's learn a little more about the world they work in. I promise I'll keep the Lance Armstrong testicle jokes to a minimum; at most you'll see them one at a time, never a pair of them together. (Damnit.)

The Races

There are quite a few different type of races out there, but for the purposes of this article - and because it will end up a Bill Simmons-esque 5,000 words long - let's focus on two main types: multi-week tours and one-day races(sometimes referred to as 'The Classics'). The biggest & most prestigious multi-week tours are the 'Grand Tours' such as the Giro D'Italia(Tour of Italy), Vuelta Espana(Tour of Spain), and the biggest of them all, the Tour de France. These races are cycling's equivalent of golf's 4 majors and you're likely to see the riders gear their entire year around prepping for 1-2 of these 3 tours. Winning any one of these can net a team and their riders millions of dollars in prize money & endorsements; the best of the best show up to these events. They're grueling, with races on 21 of 23 days and encompass not only thousands of miles(the 2013 TdF covered 2115 miles, which is the distance from Los Angeles to Fort Knox) but climbs through mountains that can reach 10,000 feet above sea level. Seriously, this was one of the climbs on one of the Giro stages this year:

3701407091_c6846d31fc_b.0_standard_709.0_medium

(via Podium Cafe)

In short, the Grand Tours are 3 weeks of a rider repeatedly testing(and sometimes exceeding) his physical & mental limits. There's a reason why ~15% of the riders drop out before the Tour de France finishes in Paris every year; either they drop out from exhaustion or from wrecks(often caused by a moment's inattentiveness due to said exhaustion). It's a rough sport to make a living in.

On the other end of the distance spectrum are the one-day races. These races can make for more interesting spectating as the riders are likely going all-out because they don't have to worry about another stage coming up tomorrow. They also get sent through cobblestone hell on some of these races(like Paris-Roubaix):

Paris-roubaix-pic-15_medium

(via Bums On The Saddle)

If you have a chance, check out one of these races when they come on TV(in the US that's usually on BeIN Sports, NBC Universal, or Versus). If you live in Colorado or California, there's the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in August and the Tour of California in May that you can check out live. These two tours bring some of the world heavyweights as well as America's best & brightest. Plus, you know, legal weed.

Jens:

The three Grand Tours are the biggest of the stage races, the events that take place over several stages and the overall winner is the one that completes the stages on the shortest accumulated time. Everyone knows the TdF and this is the race that is the introduction to cycling for most people. There are also one-day races that are often much more exciting and less complicated for a new fan. Some of the best of these races are the spring-classics that are raced in April in Belgium and northern France. The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are spectacular events with a history that dates back over a hundred years. They are raced on small roads with sections of cobblestones and short steep hills that create intense and hectic racing.  These are two of the five so called Monuments of cycling, the other three being Milano-Sanremo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy. These are the most prestigious of the one-day races on the calendar and are all as prestigious as the Grand Tours but they are mostly raced by riders with other specialties than the ones we see competing for the win in the TdF.


Where the stage races are contested by light climbers and riders that excel at riding cleverly (and often conservatively) over a number of days or weeks, the one-day races are raced by attacking riders with more power and the ability to win races with a fast sprint or by outmaneuvering their opponents. Those races are often a lot more exciting than the long, sometimes slow and hard to comprehend, stage races.

The Riders

It may seem to the uninitiated that cycling is an individual sport; but just like most sports you're familiar with, pro cycling is actually a team sport. Teams like Orica Greenedge, Garmin Sharp, & Team Sky (the teams are named after sponsors much like the cars in NASCAR) have a number of riders that have defined roles within the team. They can vary from the domestiques - riders meant to support the rest of the team during rides by grabbing water bottles from team cars, handing out food, etc. - to riders that specialize at time trials, sprint finishes, & mountain stages. All of these riders are assembled together in the quest to help a team leader win the overall race. Much in the way a guy like Dirk Nowitzki leads the Mavericks, the team leader is the overall threat in the multi-stage races and is the rider expected to seal the deal in crunch time. They're generally more well-rounded riders with the ability to take on the best riders from the other teams. Here are some of the names to keep an eye on in the world of cycling.

Alberto Contador

Alberto_contador_thumbs_up_medium

via anthonycolpo.com

(He does the pistol thing. A lot. I like to pretend he's Shooter McGavin.)

Contador is one of the top riders in the world and is in arguably his best form since...let's call it a 'murky couple of years'. He's one of the better climbers in the world and has an ability to push his body further than most, so he has a shot at winning the TdF for the fourththird time. Lord knows he's been on a tear so far this year and he's definitely been priming himself for TdF. You can never count him out of any race he's in.

Chris Froome

Christopher_froome_tdf2012_medium

via upload.wikimedia.org

(That bike may or may not be a sentient killing machine. Either way I want to take it home, lube it up, and ride it all night long. And then maybe take it out for a spin around the neighborhood.)

Froome is a hell of a rider, possibly the best in the world over the last 18 months. Not only did he win the 2013 TdF, but he supplanted Bradley Wiggins - the 2012 TdF winner & Olympic gold medalist - as the leader of Team Sky in the process. His ascendance to the top of the sport and overtaking of Wiggins is on par with Russell Westbrook starting to hit 45% of his 3s and taking over the Thunder from Durant in the process. (The analogy seems particularly apt as Froome has his own Durant/Westbrook-style teammate beef going on with Wiggins right now.) Froome is an exceptional time-trialist, an elite climber, and one of the few all-around riders I think could contend for a podium spot if he entered the Tour even without a team. He has to be the favorite going into the TdF.

Nairo Quintana

Nairo-quintana_medium

via www.moamagazine.com

(I swear I thought he was 5' 1", but he's 5' 6", which is like 6' 3" in Columbia.)

Nairo has burst onto the scene in the last year; at 24 years old he's one of the youngest contenders in cycling. He was primarily thought of as a climber prior to last year's TdF, but in the last 12 months he's finished on the podium at TdF(3rd) and won this year's Giro. He actually rode away from Froome in a TdF mountain stage last year, which is sort of like beating Tyson Gay in the 100m. He lives for the mountain stages and has become a good enough time trialist that it's no longer holding him back. If he hadn't just won the Giro - which means he won't be quite in top form in July - I'd put him right up there with Froome for the TdF this year. He's several years younger than most of the contenders, so chances are good he'll be contending for major tour titles well past some of the others listed here.

Peter Sagan

8577513447_bf99c12c79_z_medium

via c1.staticflickr.com

(Sagan does a lot of wheelies. I mean a _lot_ of wheelies.)

Sagan is an interesting character. He has a good sprinting ability, he's decent at climbing, but he's still young enough that he hasn't quite put it all together yet(he's the same age as Nairo, but not on the rocket ship to the podium Nairo is). I don't know yet if he's going to be an overall contender or if he's happy being a winner of individual stages. Mostly I put him on here so I can post videos of him doing things like this:

And this:

Mark Cavendish

(He's the guy celebrating in the top photo.)

Cavendish was put on this earth for one thing: to go really, really fast on a bicycle. Cavendish - known as The Manx Missile - is cycling's version of Usain Bolt; if he's in the hunt with 500m left to go in a flat stage, he's probably going to win. He hasn't even hit 30 and he's already won more Tour de France stages than any person ever. He sucks in the mountains and he's not a good time trialist, but if you need somebody to blow the doors off the competition in 30 seconds or less, he's your guy. Just watch the video below, and bear in mind that the guy he passes in the video is probably doing 35mph.

Jens:

Sagan is not really a pure sprinter in the mold of Cavendish. He is an OK sprinter and a brilliant all-rounder which is what makes him a strong candidate for the Points jersey (sometimes incorrectly thought of as the sprinters jersey) in the Tour.

Cavendish is however facing competition for sprinting supremacy. German Marcel Kittel now looks the dominant  and it will be interesting to see if the aging Cav can fight back this year at the Tour with a stronger team behind him than he’s had for a few years. He’s going to need it because on pure speed, Kittel has him beat these days.In the sprints though, a good leadout-train as it is called is crucial . Having teammates deliver you into the final few hundred meters in the right position can make or break a sprinters chances. Cav is reunited this year with Mark Renshaw, generally considered the best in the world at piloting and delivering his captain to the line, and that could be a huge factor.



If I were an American (and otherwise too frankly) I’d keep an extra eye on Tejay van Garderen of BMC and Andrew Talansky of Garmin. Two young stageracers who could be competing against each other in Grand Tours for many years to come. Very near each other in age and experience and probably with very similar potential, but so different in styles. They could both win Grand Tours in the years to come if they continue to develop.

Tejay the tall, cool elegant rider who is a very thinking and calculating rider vs. the short bulldog-like Talansky who is very much a fighting racer. Dogged and stubborn and very instinctual. Those two could have great duels in the years to come.

An interesting team is FDJ. A French team that has been around for a long time and that is the home of some of the most exciting french talent  we’ve seen in decades. They have both the big French overall hope, climber Thibaut Pinot and the sprinter/one-day star Arnaud Démare plus some very exciting other climbers. It’s going to be a fun team to follow. French talent overall looks really promising for this TdF. There are guys like Romain Bardet of Ag2r and Warren Barguil of Giant-Shimano who could give the French homecrowds more to cheer about than they have had in the EPO era when the homenation struggled to keep up with other nations.


The Doping

Ah yes, the thing most Americans know cycling for: drugs. Many people think cycling is still rife with doping, but the reality is that things have changed a ton in the past 3-4 years thanks to advancements in testing. The most notable change is the introduction of the biological passport, which is essentially a long-term testing regime that reveals a lot more about an athlete's doping(or lack thereof) than any single test could in the past. This has effectively shrunk not only the amount of doping a cyclist can get away with but the difference in effective level between a clean cyclist & a doper. Combine that with several teams that are publicly committed to clean riding and you have a different playing field than there was during the Lance Armstrong years. FIFA & the MLB are both copying cycling's testing format because of its success.

(If you have the time, Tyler Hamilton's book 'The Secret Race' is a must-read for understanding doping during the Lance years.)

Jens:

The doping I could give you fifty answers and there would be no sure way of knowing. What we do know is that with the passport and some changing attitudes the gains you can make from doping are most likely far smaller. So while it for a long period of time it was barely possible for a clean rider to compete against a field of so many EPO doped riders it now appears like clean riders can compete and win big races. Whether we are seeing a field that is almost entirely clean as some insist or if it is a cleaner field but where the majority of big victories are still taken by doped riders as more cynical observers believe is an open question.

It is clear though that after a few years of serious anti-doping work cycling is now no longer more dirty (and probably cleaner) than other professional sports like football, hockey, basketball, soccer, tennis and track&field.






So there you have it, nearly 2600 words on a sport most Longhorn fans don't pay much attention to. Hopefully you found some of this enlightening, entertaining, and interesting enough to check out cycling a little closer the next time you see it on TV.
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