With all the recent broken contracts in the sport of pro cycling you would have thought that they were printed on toilet paper using invisible ink. First there was half of Team Astana heading over to Team Radio Shack. Now, Bradley Wiggins has left Garmin-Transitions for Britain's new pro squad, Team Sky.
There are a couple of issues here. First off, are all contracts created equally? Should all contracts, regardless of the circumstances be honored? Are there any extenuating rules or laws that affect whether a contract is valid or not?
First off, it is not clear that all contracts are created equally. By this, I mean are some contracts easier to break than others. Some contracts include 'opt-out' clauses that allow a contract to become void if the team doesn't meet certain conditions. One 'opt-out' clause would be to allow a rider to leave if a team loses it's Pro Tour status. Clearly, if a contract has an 'opt out' clause it can be broken if the clause is met.
Secondly, are there any extenuating circumstances that might make breaking a contract OK. In the case of the contract breaking at Team Astana, it must be remembered that the riders on that team were not paid for three months during the middle of the season. And, though the situation was finally resolved, it took a lot of pressure and potential exclusion from the Tour de France to finally get the paychecks rolling again.
Since the riders on Astana are pros and they do this to put food on the table for their wives and kids, I fully support the riders' decision to switch teams. Team Radio Shack is run by a management group with a record of paying it's riders so that is a huge incentive to head for more security.
In the case of Bradley Wiggins leaving Garmin-Transitions, there are no concerns about being paid. This was just the case of a rider wanting to leave his contract early for a team where both the rider, Wiggins, and management, Team Sky, wanted him to be. I don't support this type of behavior. Wiggins is a pro and he should have honored his contract with Garmin, especially since that team was responsible for his breakthrough season.
In fact, it is kind of ironic when you think about it. Garmin were the ones responsible for Wiggins becoming a bona fide Tour de France contender. Team Sky has a stated goal of having the first ever British winner of the Tour de France within five years. So, Garmin created the problem that caused Wiggins departure. Before you start feeling sorry for Jonathan Vaughters, it must be remembered that there was a buyout clause for Wiggins to go to Team Sky. Vaughters might not have Wiggins in 2010, but his bank account is definitely larger.
The third point is that there are some other factors which affect the validity of contracts. Not only am I not a labor lawyer, but we are are also talking about European Union labor laws and that makes things even more complex. I believe there are some laws which state that you can't force someone to work for someone if they don't want to. That's a pretty nebulous statement and, to be honest, I don't know the full ramifications of such laws. Suffice it to say that there may be more to honoring contracts in Europe than meets the eye.
Today was a day for the lesser-placed riders as a group of ten broke away from an Astana-controlled peloton to take the glory at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. This is a great segue into the theme of this posting which is, a stage may be difficult, but it is not necessarily decisive. I think that observation applies to Stage 4 from Merced to Clovis, today's stage from Santa Clarita to Pasadena and the final stage tomorrow from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido.
All three of these stages contain a lot of climbing. On paper, none of these climbs is exceptionally steep, but at the speed the pros are capable of riding up these ascents all of them can be very, very difficult. So, I don't think anyone isn't saying that these stages are an easy day for a lady. Quite the contrary. The real question from a racing standpoint is, are these stages decisive?
By decisive I mean will they have an affect on the race's overall standings? Unfortunately, in the case of these three stages, the climbs come too early in the day's ride. As we have seen many times before, a well-driven peloton can chase down a breakaway as long as the gap isn't too large. So, all the peloton needs to do is give the riders off the front some rope and they can reel them in.
In the case of today's stage, the ten-rider breakaway did not contain any riders who could threaten Levi's overall lead so Team Astana smartly allowed them some rope and the stage win. No harm done and Levi will be in yellow tomorrow. Also, it is a good idea to let other teams have their day in the sun. Greed doesn't make too many friends.
So, while a stage may be difficult, the position of the climbs has a huge affect on whether the stage will also be decisive. Stage 2 into Santa Cruz was decisive because the climb of Bonny Doon Road occurred so close to the finish. Stage 1 into Santa Rosa should not have been a decisive stage, but two factors, the fact that the breakaway containing Mancebo was allowed to get way too much time and the sanfu with the radio communications made it a decisive stage. Which goes to prove that even a difficult, non-decisive stage can become decisive if unforeseen factors intervene. That's what we call bike racing.
You finally say Christian Vande Velde(Garmin-Slipstream) at the head of affairs.Christian was on the podium last year, but has been pretty invisible this year. I asked his team director, Jonathan Vaughters, why Christian seemed to be auditioning for a remake of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Jonathan said that last year, the team was bidding for a wild card entry into the Tour de France so they needed to shine in the early season to impress the selection committee. This year, as a Pro Tour team, they are guaranteed an entry into the Tour so they are bringing Christian along a bit more slowly so he will be ready to fly come July.
I caught up with Michael Barry of Columbia-High Road at the TT. Michael and I have known each other for years so I can say this publicly, he looked like death warmed over. I asked him why and he said that he and teammate Adam Hansen have the job of looking after Mark Cavendish. What this means is that on the stages with climbs, when Mark gets dropped, Michael and Adam have to drop back and then pace Mark back up to the peloton after the climb is over. Then in the last two hours of the stage, they have to go to the front and ride tempo to bring back any breakaways. That's a tough way to make a living! Luckily, Michael and Adam are pretty good at it. Just look at the results.
It was great to see Chris Baldwin (Rock Racing) off the front in the breakaway today. Chris is a multi-national champion in the time trial so yesterday in Solvang, it should have been his day to shine. But, because his teammate, Oscar Sevilla, was in a position to take a high overall place, Chris had to hold back in case he needed to ride at the front to defend Sevilla's position. After his ride, Chris said it was very difficult to hold back in his specialty.
As mentioned in my previous blog, the Garmin-Slipstream team held a week-long training camp in Boulder, Colorado from November 15th to the 23rd capped off by a gala team presentation on Saturday night. Over 800 people attended; it was a great time to mingle with team members, cycling VIPs, other pros and fans. I chatted a bit with several riders and team personnel, here's a report.
2008 was a breakthrough year for Christian Vande Velde who has toiled as a domestique for the first nine years of his professional career. Christian has had the opportunity to ride on some of pro cycling's best teams such as US Postal and Team CSC and has ridden in support of such outstanding team leaders as Lance Armstrong, Roberto Heras, Ivan Basso and Carlos Sastre.
I asked Christian what he has learned about being a team leader while riding for such stars of pro cycling. "I think a little bit from everyone. Everyone had their own personalities not necessarily what I would do 100%. I am not going to do 100% Lance or Ivan or Carlos, but all those guys are obviously great leaders and had a great team behind them and guys who would lay on the tracks for them."
Of course, Lance is the gold standard with his seven tour wins and such a cohesive team. "From day one I learned a lot from Lance. He is a reminder every day when I see him. He is always looking me in the face when I turn the computer on. He is just a reminder to work hard and not leave any stone unturned." added the Chicago native.
Jonathan Vaughters brought some new recruits onto the team for 2009 most notably Bradley Wiggins, Svein Tuft and Hans Dekker. What was he looking for in choosing new riders? "Guys that fit in. Guys who would die for the cause. Of course they are ambitious, but not selfishly ambitious," replied the former pro.
Former US Postal, Discovery Channel and Cofidis professional rider Matt White is a director for the Garmin-Slipstream team and is usually found in the team car taking care of his riders during races. In 2009, the team will be part of the Union Cycliste International's elite Pro Tour, elevating the squad to the top tier of professional racing. What changes will the team have to make to rise to the occasion? "Honestly, not so much. There are a few races on the calendar that we didn't do, not so many, actually, we did a lot of Pro Tour stuff being a UCI Continental Team."
With overall wins in the Tour of Missouri, Route du Sud and a 4th place in the Tour de France, Garmin-Slipstream is clearly prepared to do battle in the biggest stages races, but can the squad be competitive in the spring classics? "If you look on paper, obviously we have a lot of time trialists. On paper we are the best time trial team in the world. We should be able to match Team CSC or any other team that is thrown against us. Our weakness is the classics," explains White.
However, with 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Backstedt, 2008 Paris-Roubaix fourth place finisher Martijn concludes the director sportif.
How does Tyler feel about his classics chances? "That's my number one objective going into the season. Those are the races I love and that's what I will be aiming at all winter," reasons Farrar.
What about a win in the Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix for Farrar? "I hope so. I have been developing well for the classics. It takes a lot of experience and they are a special kind of racing, but every year I feel like I am getting a little better at them," replies the leader during stage 3 of the 2008 Amgen Tour of California.
Martijn Maaskant had a breakthrough ride at the 2008 Paris-Roubaix. What will it take for the Dutchman to get on the podium at the cobbled classic? "I need to get more experience on how to read the race. You need to be able to tell how your opponents are doing. If they are good or they are not good. And when you get older, you get stronger."
Martijn learned a lot from his first trip into the He11 of the North. "The most important thing in that race is that you have to ride on the front because there are so many crashes and flat tyres you can't really ride in the back because if you get stuck behind a flat or a crash you lose so much time and so much power which you will need in the finale."
The most high profile of Jonathan Vaughters' new signings is Bradley Wiggins. Wiggins is a six-time World Champion on the track and a triple Olympic gold medalist, most recently winning gold in Beijing in the Individual Pursuit and the Team Pursuit. What would Bradley like to accomplish on the road in 2009? "I am still trying to branch out, really. I am still missing that Tour de France stage win. That's what I really want. Just to be part of this squad and win that team time trial in Montpelier at the Tour and put one of us in yellow, whomever it may be, Christian, Dave Z, David Millar. And then to go into Girona with the yellow jersey and defend from there that is something I really want to be part of."
"Besides of my own personal ambitions, being part of a team like that would be massive, yeah. I have never really been part of a team like that so it would be a massive experience and potentially, hopefully going onto the Champs de Elysees with Christian in yellow would top it all off" adds the Brit.
There is no doubt the the Garmin-Slipstream team has the tools and the talents to move up to the top of professional cycling. Matt White sums up the plan for 2009. "We were a big story last year, but now we need to capitalize on the big steps we made in the last four months."