Tag Archives: Cycling

A few words about Lance

It’s been almost two months since Lance Armstrong was all but formally stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, but the fallout continues, as do the questions from many of my British (and other European) classmates about the whole sordid affair.

The extended period of time that Lance’s shaming in the public sphere has carried on is indicative of the degree to which his personality and legacy were allowed to permeate American sport and consciousness. In recent days, we’ve read that Nike, Trek and Budweiser have now ended their endorsement deals with Lance (quick reflexes there, eh?), that his quote is being removed from an Olympic training centre, and that he is stepping down as the head of a foundation that he created. The fallout will likely continue for quite some time.

Ugh

In truth, I was very late to jump on the Armstrong bandwagon, so I’m not exactly heartbroken by Lance’s downfall. In his early years of winning Tours, there were plenty of reasons to hate him: He was arrogant (and for my European readers, I mean even more arrogant than your average American). And he left his wife, who had stuck with him through his life-threatening cancer, for Sheryl Crow.

But there were other reasons I wasn’t rooting for him in those early years. For some reason, I felt more affinity to Jan Ullrich. Lance was my compatriot, sure, but his story wasn’t as easily to relate to as Ullrich’s. Armstrong had a dramatic tale of surviving cancer and rebuilding his body from scratch to win the Tour. Ullrich was just a hard-working kid whose only fault seemed to be coming of age at the wrong time (of course Jan might have had some character flaws as well).

All that said, I’m still not happy to see Lance’s star come crashing down the way it has.

Lance was admired and regarded as a hero for so long because he was what we wanted him to be. In his now-parodied Nike ad (here’s the original), he affirmed what every athlete — even the most amateur — wants to believe: that the human body is infinitely malleable and is ultimately limited only by our level of determination. One year, during their annual acknowledgement of pro cycling, Sports Illustrated none-too-subtly compared Lance and Neil Armstrong. And it was a fair comparison — both individuals changed our notion of what was possible.

The truth is, we created Lance Armstrong (and Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds and Marion Jones and…) because we wanted heroes who were superhuman and Lance was all-to-willing to oblige.

I don’t buy the argument (advanced by none other than Malcolm Gladwell) that Lance ought not be punished for simply doing what everyone else at the time was doing, but doing it better.  But I do think we’ve neglected to address one of the most important issues surrounding that particularly dark period in cycling history that began with Bjarne Riis’ now discredited 1996 Tour victory, included the 1998 Festina Affair, enveloped Lance’s 7 years at the top, and still hasn’t completely ended, but might at least have marked its final act with the nullification of Alberto Contador’s 2010 Tour title.

That oft-neglected issue is this:   We LOVED watching races during that era. A doped up Lance Armstrong versus a presumably doped up Jan Ullrich with an occasional third party (such as an about-to-overdose Marco Pantini, or a rising doping star like Ivan Basso) was good theatre and we ate it up. Some of the fastest races ever took place during those EPO-addled years, and fans appreciated the enhancements to the race.

Really, all of you guys? Surely there must be someone in the Top 100 this year who didn’t dope.

Armstrong’s rise in the  European peloton sparked an interest in professional cycling among Americans that continues still.  On the other side of the Atlantic, a researcher in Belgium conducted an interesting study of what characteristics influenced viewership of individual  stages in the Tour de France between 1997 and 2010. He found that allegations or suspicions of doping (as defined in the study) had little impact on viewership. Trust? Sure, but not viewership.

So, as I said last year in my ode to Thomas Voeckler, I now revel more in the human moments of professional cycling — riders grimacing (and rightly so) as they struggle over forbidding mountain passes, Bradley Wiggins appealing for civility after a series of punctured tires, or the cunning tactical maneuvers of teams where mental acuity is running higher than physical stamina. Lance Armstrong was the culmination of a generation that offered us cycling performed by superhumans. We liked the product, but ultimately, didn’t like the production process.

Luxury Bikes for the BRICS!

New format: Idea up front, explanation later.

Idea: Luxury bicycles marketed specifically to emerging economies

Explanation: Anyone who knows me, or who reads my other blog, knows that I will go to great lengths to ride my bike, even if only for short lengths. Because of my appreciation for these machines, I now posit the Maus Hypothesis of Bicycle Appreciation. 

My hypothesis is thus: that the appreciation for bicycles in a given country or society correlates to income along a U-curve. That is, in the poorest of countries, where bicycles are ubiquitous, they are appreciated for their many functions. Here in Uganda, bicycles serve as taxis, pushcarts, and even, as bicycles.

As incomes increase, appreciation of bicycles lowers. Because bicycles are associated with the days of poverty, they are shunned by the new rich who see cars as a status symbol.  But at the highest income levels, bicycle appreciation recovers. Here, people now have time for recreation, and thus view bicycles as fun. Also, in some places, cars have become so passe that they no longer carry value as a status symbol, and in densely populated urban areas, have diminished value as a mode of transport.

Here is how I would visually depict this hypothesis:


Obviously, there would be some outliers on this graph. The US has higher incomes, but lower appreciation for bicycles, due mostly to America’s deeply entrenched car culture, and low levels of physical fitness (although this is perhaps both cause and effect). Additionally, in some poor countries, say Mongolia, cycling has never gained widespread acceptance due to geography or culture. Also, keep in mind that the y-axis plots appreciation not usage of bikes.

It’s mostly in the emerging markets that bicycles face the biggest challenge. I’m thinking specifically of the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and even more specifically of India and China. The BRICS account for over 40% of the world’s population, a quarter of its landmass and most of its current economic growth. Thus, the transport and lifestyle habits of people in these countries will have a massive impact on the future of the planet.

As I’ve suggested, bicycles are by no means scarce in these countries. But as soon as people have enough money, they usually trade them in for automobiles. There might be any number of reasons someone decides to purchase a car, but I would guess that the main one is status. After all, if you live in China or India, and you’ve ridden a bike your whole life, it’s probably because that was all you could afford. If you continue to ride a bike, people will assume your situation hasn’t changed. But driving a car will make it clear that you’ve done well for yourself.

If 1.4 billion Chinese people and 1.2 billion Indians start driving cars at the same rate as Americans, it’s curtains for those countries’ infrastructure and air quality. As in the US, the individual desire for status will probably trump any feeling of societal obligation.

If I’m correct that people buy cars to display their wealth and status (it’s hard to explain any functional benefit to having a car instead of a bike in Beijing or Delhi), the disadvantage of bikes is that they are associated with poverty, rather than wealth.

But not so for the luxury bike!

How is a luxury bike different from any other bike? In the same way that an Acura is different from a Honda: different branding and nicer accessories. A solid bike with a plush leather saddle, brake and shift levers made of chrome or some other unnecessary metal, and the right brand name on the frame could quite effectively convey one’s status.

Coming soon to a bike near you?

The production and manufacture of these bicycles would be the easy part. The branding and marketing would be more difficult. We could either try to develop a brand from scratch, equating our bikes with power and sophistication and recruiting a celebrity or two to endorse the brand. Or we could licence the name of an existing luxury brand, e.g. build our bikes and then paint the name ‘Gucci’ on then (and then perhaps encrust the name with diamonds).

These bicycles would be marketed to the fast-growing middle classes in emerging economies. This segment has shown a high degree of brand consciousness and is at highest risk of buying a car.

Who wants to go in on this venture???

Why Thomas Voeckler could save the Tour de France

In case you have no idea what the title of this post means, but are still interested in reading my illuminating posts, roll over here.

Just so nobody feels the need to point out the obvious, let’s make one thing clear up front: Voeckler has very little chance of keeping the yellow jersey all the way to Paris next Sunday.  Even he is insisting that he has no chance of winning, regardless of what anyone else says.

BUT!

What if, by some chance, he keeps up this show of defiance for just one more week, and holds off the best climbers in the world through the Alps’ most punishing climbs?  It would send shockwaves through the sport and would make Voeckler a national hero.

And, in my opinion, it would be an uncategorically positive thing for professional cycling.  In fact, it might be the best thing that could happen to a sport tainted by a never-ending string of doping scandals.  There are two basic reasons behind this sentiment:

  1. Voeckler’s lack of superhuman qualities
  2. Voeckler’s strikingly different attitude
Lack of Superhuman qualities

I could rattle off and describe in detail a long list of specific moments during Lance Armstrong’s 7 years of Tour dominance that still give me chills down my spine (Le Grand Bornand in 2004, Luz Ardiden in 2003, L’Alpe d”Huez almost every time he climbed it, etc.).

But ever since 2006 — when Floyd Landis suffered an epic collapse on stage 16, bounced back with an improbable victory in stage 17, won the Tour and then was stripped of the title because he’d tested positive for synthetic testosterone during that stage 17 victory — I’ve come to view all such amazing feats with suspicion.  Like many other fans, I’ve come to accept that if a cyclist puts on a performance that doesn’t seem humanly possible, it might be because it’s not — at least not naturally.

And here’s what I like about Voeckler — he hasn’t produced any stunning moments.  His 2011 Tour is not the stuff of highlight reels.  Indeed, he’s still wearing the maillot jaune as much because of gritty determination as incredible talent or ability.  There’s nothing about his performance that would even cause you to wonder if he might be doping.

Voeckler’s Different Attitude

Because simply finishing the Tour de France is an extraordinary feat that only the fittest of athletes can contemplate, the race naturally gives rise to some big egos among those elite riders at the front of the peloton.  Thomas Voeckler is not one of them.

Indeed, although he has been the face of determination and perseverance this last week, his comments suggest that he has rejected the “Win at any cost, even your honour” mentality that has propelled some of the greats to stardom, and has no doubt encouraged many to turn to banned substances and other dangerous doping practices.

But the contrast between Voeckler and the riders of almost mythical stature is most strikingly evident in an incident that happened long before his recent denial that he could ever possibly even think about winning the Tour:

In 2004  Voeckler and the famously arrogant Armstrong were both involved in a crash in the 6th stage of the Tour.  Armstrong, as he so often did, took the opportunity to chastise the Tour organizers for their lack of foresight in preventing crashes.  Voeckler, meanwhile, said he was glad he hadn’t injured Armstong during the crash. 

In all probability, Voeckler will lose the yellow jersey this week, either to the increasingly unloveable Alberto Contador; to Andy Schleck, who is undoubtedly the future of the Tour; or to Andy’s brother Frank Schleck.  Any of those would be a champion the Tour deserves.

But Voeckler is the champion the Tour needs.