Monday, 31 December 2012

2012 highlights

Yes, it is that time of the year and I'm a bit late. But, what better way to end 2012 but to take a look at the very best moments, at least from my point of view.

Readers of this blog will recognize as I say that this is difficult to do as cycling, as any sport, is so connected to emotions. But, where is the fun if one cannot have an opinion, right?

I've divided the year into certain categories, to be a bit systematic in my approach:

Best attack
Tom Boonen's attack during Paris-Roubaix - With some 60 kilometers to go, Tommeke takes off and doesn't look back. I remember his DS saying in a video "Amazing, he's still going over 50 km/h!" Now this number could be all talk but anyway Boonen walked the walk and made the Belgians sing and dance his techno song once more.

Boonen breaks away

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Honourable mention: De Gendt's long-distance haul on the penultimate stage of the giro, he almost pipped Hesjedal for pink.

Most emotional win
Matteo Rabattini's stage 15 of the giro - arguably the most heroic stage win of the year. What cycling is all about really, an attack just 18 km into the 169 km stage and held off, even as Rodriguez joined him just 400 meters to go.

Best teammate
Edvald Boasson Hagen - Yes, I'm biased but I know I'm not alone as Velonews also awarded him the price. To selflessly put his own ambitions aside and work for Wiggo and Sky like he did during the tour was amazing. Of course, many members of the Sky-train did the same, and deserve a mention as Sky brought some stars to France. EBH dropped Basso and other top notch climbers from his back wheel, not once, not twice but several times in the mountains. Still his palmares in July had of a couple of podium spots. That's what true champions do; when they are not allowed to win, they set themselves new goals and deliver the goods.

Best team

Team Sky and Omega-Pharma Quickstep. Not only referring to the rankings as pictured, but also to other criteria. As mentioned Sky's domination at the tour, and the fact that many different riders did win on OPQS are some of the key elements in my opinion.

Also worth a mention is the total destruction of Radioshack during the tour, which mysteriously gave them the best team award. Anyone watching the last couple of days witnessed teammates not cooperating. Of course you can always blame the UCI point system as always but still.

Best race
The Olympic Road Race for women produced some of the best racing I've seen all year. Hopefully they get the recognition they deserve in 2013.

Best cycling media outlet
1. Velonews - This was a tight race. I have to say it's just the last couple of years I've followed Velonews closely, mostly due to the fact that they traditionally have been more oriented towards the American audience. However, Velonews has taken huge steps the last year, clearly the crew is doing something right.

2. Velonation - this crew has a slightly different approach than Velonews, as Velonation has a more in-depth style, going further and deeper than any other outlet. Perhaps not first with the last but very well connected in the different aspects of the pro cycling world and I do enjoy the interviews.

3. Bikeradar - tech style. I'm not that into tech myself, I want my equipment to function. That said I do care about detail, style and quality. So, James Huang et al - here is to you guys.

Best blogger
Inner Ring - not much to say really. Balancing news, in-depth analysis of everything from races, climbs and teams to the financial elements and UCI rule book, he's on it with an objective point of view.  Funny or sad, depending on your preferences, is that he is seldom mention in #FFs. Probably because everybody is following him anyway. If you don't already, get your head out of the sand.

Worst team
Astana, Katusha - Ethics, finances. Hiring old school dopers, firing old-school dopers whilst being catched for doping yourself, the list goes on. Dodgy as few, they should attend Branding 101. Radioshack's top manager Johan Bruyneel deserves a mention too, dragging a team down. There is a "t" in team, and there are some 70-90 people involved in a team so the responsibility is huge. Sadly, the riders and other staffers suffer, that's how the cycling environment of today. Nuf said.

Best marketing
The RCS and OPQS - Open, friendly, fan-oriented, available and innovative.

Worst downfall
Lance Armstrong - you all know the story and my point of view. I unfollowed Big Tex recently, he's not worth it.

Nice guys
NYvelocity and Cyclismas for setting up the Paul Kimmage fund.

Most embarrassing moment
Phillip Hindes' deliberate crash and the British journalists who defended him - one of the top Olympic controversies during the London Olympics, the place where good sportsmanship should reign took a beating. BC sprint coach Jan van Eijden said, rather blunt and/or arrogantly, that "something must have been lost in translation as Hindes just recently moved to England." Really, on national TV Mr. Eijden, please reconsider before you tell everybody watching that they are fools. To take advantage of the existing rulebook like that was not good, nor was the "national Olympic googles" some of the British journalists had during the Games. Hopefully it will be long until we see this happen again (at least four years).

Hindes on the downside

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Man of the year
Travis Tygart - without a doubt. He went where very few had dared to go, he did it with integrity, objectivity and with no intention to back down for the immense pressure he and his crew were exposed to. He changed cycling for life, as of now, we are just learning what will happen. This case will tear through cycling for years to come on every level.

Bring on 2013!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Mauro Vegni - on organizing the Giro d'Italia

As the road season is back on tarmac (or snow for those living in northern Europe), I turn to look more behind the scenes of organizing events, the Giro in particular. I was able to get in touch with Mauro Vegni, operations director and RCS executive, to get to know more about him and learn how the RCS approach the organization of the giro.

Vegni interrupted while enjoying a gelato

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Mauro Vegni - coincidents shape lives
At a very young age he got involved in cycling as he moved to Rome from the small city of Cetona in Siena district. As one of the rare moments when coincidence happens to set direction to a life, his closest  neighbor turned out to be Franco Mealli, long time organizer of cycling events and owner of the Velo Club Forze Sportive Romane. From his early teen years Vegni followed Mealli around, watching and learning.
"Master" Franco Mealli put me up front quite soon and I became actively involved in the Tirreno-Adriatico, Giro del Lazio, Giro dell'Umbria, Giro di Puglia Ruato d'Oro, Trofeo Pantalica, Trofeo dell'Etna, Settimana Ciclista Internazionale - just to mention professional races."

Before turning 25 years old Vegni becomes managing director and often takes over the reins of the sporting event, managing on his own, upon appointment by the patron. Having learned from Mealli through the years, Vegni quickly pays attention to the different details necessary to organize events. Vegni becomes more and more involved due to the health situation of Franco Mealli. In 1994, Vegni is heading the decentralized management structure in four different race fields. A very demanding job which required the utmost dedication and commitment to succeed. On the following year, the transfer og the cycling races belonging to Velo Cluc Forze Romane to RCS Sport becomes effective, making Vegni move to Milan under the watchful eye of Carmine Castellano.
In 2003 he is charge of the entire cycling department and in 2005, when Castellano concludes his career in the RCS Sport, Mauro Vegni is the one to jump into the Giro d'Italia and the other classical races of the RCS flagship car, calling the shots.

A lifetime in cycling has also granted Vegni different federal appointments, like member of the Professional Council, a body of the Italian Cycling Federation.

Creating a Grand Tour
Having years of experience Vegni still enjoys making the giro as good as possible.
"The good result of a great giro is related to a number of fundamental key factors:
The technical and sport side: a stage race, important like the Giro is, cannot leave out of considerations such elements as effort, tradition, routes, thus without omitting innovation and respect vis-à-vis the athletes. In short, a hard but well balanced route (is what I look for).
The choreographic aspects: a huge event as such cannot disregard collateral and choreographic activities which shall turn it into an important communication opportunity: samples of the foregoing are the Olympic Games opening ceremonies"

"Phase one is what I call the "Construction of the Giro project", starting from the city which will host the Giro d’Italia “Big Departure” it shall be necessary to begin designing a route presenting a technical soundness. (As the thumb rule there are) Two/three time trial stages, six/seven sprinters’ stages, five/six summit finishes, five/six average mountain stages, providing that the most significant stages are planned during week-ends.
Once the plan is ready then starts the period in which to liaise with local institutions so as to identify the approximately 40 locations able to host one ore more stages of the Giro d'Italia."

"Phase two is the "Technical on-site inspections", which are the time when the Giro project effectively takes its shape, when the RCS Sport and Host broadcaster’s teams visit the stage locations, defining in detail all the areas which will be interested by the race: the finish area, the, race headquarters, the departure area, the last kilometers and the distance of transfer to kilometer zero, etc."

All set - in the flagship car

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Inspections - details are everything
During spring and summer several RCS officials are on "site inspections" at cities hosting the arrival or departure of the (next year's) giro. 

"A typical on-site investigation day can be summarized as follows: 
- MorningRCS Sports team, together with the technical finish representatives and the TV crew take part to a first presentation meeting together with the members of the local organization committee (or stage committee). On this occasion all organization requirements and the support requested to the stage committee are expounded to the last detail.
Following the meeting, and after examination of the local committee possible requests, the teams proceed to the identification of the various areas, finish, open village (the sponsors’ village open to the public), race headquarters (the headquarters of the organization which host the press room, the conference room and the other organization-related offices).
During this phase all necessary steps are taken and the finish feasibility is assessed, also based on the kind of stage (sprint finishes require wider roads, etc).
Starting from such areas, then parking facilities, deviations for flagship cars, helicopter landing pads and so on, are due to be identified.

- Afternoon: RCS Sports team, together with the technical finish representatives and the TV crew move in the departure location. After a first presentation meeting with the local committee all the areas interested by the departure are identified. That is to say: the signature podium area and the departure village, the parking facilities for teams’ buses, the transfer route to kilometer zero, etc. Also in this case all remarks that will then be necessary for drafting the technical notes and the location maps are duly addressed.

- Evening: Once arrived in the hotel the work of the organization goes on with the drafting of the technical remarks and preparing the drawings and the location maps which will then be sent to the local organization committees in order to have all interventions required to realize the stage duly taken care of."

One could wonder how much personnel Vegni would need to make the Giro happen, but in fact it is not as heavily manned as I expected it to be, at least in the planning phase. 
"Only considering the technical-sport aspects, the planning phase activity, which allows to start from an idea and to then reach the final design of the Giro d'Italia, ties down 5 persons.

The on-site inspection phase requires two teams:
1 RCS Sport team composed by approximately 20 persons including people in charge, technicians and designers holding specific skills as regards departure, arrival, race headquarters and last kilometers 
1 Host broadcaster team composed by approximately 10 persons, in order to  control, under a TV broadcasting standpoint, the production requirements of each stage 

Always considering the sole technical-sport aspects (without counting all the forces operating in the logistics, marketing, press fields, etc.), the operative personnel dedicated to the event amounts to approximately 160 persons."

Glory days - Vegni with Acquarone and Scarponi in Denmark 2012

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As Vegni look into the crystal ball he glazes backwards to, comparing the old days to the present. 

"The Giro d'Italia has changed a lot in respect to the past, especially for what concerns the approach and the philosophy grounding the event: a real demand for innovation linked to an increasing attention to internationality, trying to avoid habits and repetitiveness. This becomes a concrete reality through taking some more risks, looking for new and original spots: Zoncolan, Galibier and Assisi, by way of example, derive from this approach.

But there is more, the stage’s planning and feasibility technical assessment phase has taken a  highly professional aspect, leaving nothing to chance or to last minute management."

Teamwork, spirit is one more important factor, which for sure represents a great added value, he adds. 

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Kjærgaard speaks out - sort of

Just as I started to feel Armstrong fatigue after following the recent developments, as probably you all did, the snowball from the Armstrong/USPS-affair came to Norway.

Norway hasn't had that many doping cases, a couple of weightlifters for steroids, a race walker was busted for EPO last year, and a couple of the odd "it was in my supplements"-excuses are pretty much it. Even a horse is listed as one of Norway's doping scandals. Says perhaps much about Norwegians too, what do I know. 

Kjærgaard during today's press conference

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It isn't that Kjærgaard doped that surprises me, followers on twitter would know my position, although I put my pride in not openly judge riders without proof. It's not a fair fight. I remember when I started following pro cycling seriously, I almost laughed at the idea of an omertà in cycling, that it was something the conspiracy thinkers out there had cooked together. However, it didn't take long to get an understanding that something was lurking in the dark. Today, as Kjærgaard admitted doping, his fear of the omertà was obvious.

Two stories
Among the journos at the press conference today sat Mads Kaggestad, former Credit Agricole now cycling commentator on Norwegian TV2. He rode at the same time as Kjærgaard (2003), on different teams obviously. Today he confronted Kjærgaard harshly, on several subjects such as who was involved behind the scenes, Johan Bruyneels touch in the matters at USPS, how he refused to believe that Kjærgaard and the other riders at Chicken and USPS didn't talk about doping "at all", as Kjærgaard said. 
On one hand you have Kjærgaard, a talented rider, one of the few Norwegians who went pro, did scoop up a couple of good palmares on his way, arguably being one of Norway's top three cyclists. He rode together with Lance Armstrong on his team, one of, if not the greatest rider on the planet. On the other hand you have Kaggestad, a very talented rider who also turned pro, but instead of going to a dodgy team he went to Credit Agricole under the watchful eye of Roger Legeay. He never got the same palmares as Kjærgaard, struggled in the increasingly faster peloton in the beginning of the millennium. But he never gave in
Today I saw an angry Kaggestad confronting Kjærgaard and the two careers puzzled me. To see and feel the emotions Kaggestad had, not only because he "knew" something wasn't right back then, but also due the fact that Kjærgaard has lied to Kaggestad's and everyone's face the last 10-15 years. As who has my respect today, it's quite clear. I had much respect for Mads Kaggestad before, both because of what he accomplished as a rider and because of his commentator skills, but today he earned even more. To compete in a peloton that goes faster every week, year after year, and still maintaining his stance is remarkable. He almost ran his body in the ditch as the dopers increased the tempo. Kaggestad says to that he feels doping to a certain degree ruined his career. 

Kjærgaard on Chicky

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Kaggestad questioning Kjærgaard

Photo credit Erlend Aas, Scanpix

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Many, many riders didn't dope, I hear you say. True, then they all deserve an extra clap on the shoulders. It is difficult when dreams meet reality. When real life obligations meet demands. I think I have my priorities clear and my suitcase of courage, but that's me. Kaggestad can face others with pride, while the one who doped quietly wiped tears today in a press conference. In the end, Kaggestad won.

The basics
To me this is about the fundamental element of sports; a level playing field. The payment of hard work, dedication, brilliant tactics and teamwork is the key reason I follow sports. Maybe over the edge romantic, but that's how it is. The idea of someone playing by a different set of rules makes sport pointless, meaningless.

Reading Tyler Hamilton's book "The Secret Race" was interesting, not so much because of the doping itself, mostly old news except the scale of it, but more due to the insight on Hamilton's personal level. What is it like to live a lie for so many years? Earning your job, perhaps some of your friends, your network, your house and car on something fake? Like it or not, it does something to you. Read the book, Kjærgaard did and said on the press conference that he was hoping to learn and feel what Hamilton did as he came forward with the news. 
Doping isn't (just) cheating, cheating is what you can do in card games. No, doping is fraud. You earn money, that means someone else loses. You win and get famous, that means someone else will not get the sponsors you do. There are many more than just the riders involved too, take a look at Rabo, that's some 80-100 people who have secured income just one more year. They have families etc etc, you follow my lead here, no doubt about that.

Omerta is still here
During the press conference I was waiting to see Kjærgaard namedrop some of the people behind the organized doping. Actually, it was Kaggestad who first asked about the people standing in the shadows. Suddenly Kjærgaard's body-language froze (even more). In the beginning he couldn't recall one person in any teams he had doped in.  As he received heat he mentioned Del Moral's name once, but the words "closed communication between me and the doctors", "closed network", He even said that he didn't know if Kim Andersen knew he (Kjærgaard) doped when he was on Andersen's team, even though the team doctor did the injections. To me this was a great disappointment, I had hoped he would provide info on the main characters in the shadows. Perhaps it wasn't the time nor place to call out everyone who was involved. Kjærgaard rather pathetic said he "didn't recall anyone directly involved in doping on any of the teams he rode for." He came clear on his own, but it became clear to me that the omertà still is alive and kicking.

Kjærgaards predecessor as national sports director, Svein Gaute Hølestøl, knew Kjærgaard doped back in 1999. He was a fellow Norwegian pro cyclist in Belgium at the same time as Kjærgaard. Hølestøl was sports director for Kjærgaard on the national team later, knowing Kjærgaard had doped. 

Kjærgaard will be interviewed by Antidoping Norway on his experiences, and that might clear some matters up, at least I hope he take advantage of that possibility. 

Today Steffen Kjærgaard, former USPS and former national sports director Norwegian Cycling, admitted doping in his career. He sat there crying, admitting that he had planned to take this secret with him right until the end. He was pushed to confess, by the recent events in cycling. His honor is gone, as he has kept a lie for 15 years. One of the things annoying me the most is him being a leader. Having responsibility for the development of others is disturbing. 

Today I also saw the omertà alive and kicking, and what it does to people. It need to stop.

I sincerly hope Kjærgaard finds some inner peace in coming forward, but I see that is a small comfort to all the people he robbed and deceived. Living a lie is never easy.

More on the case:


Friday, 28 September 2012

Rapha and Team Sky - a challenge for rapha branding?

The news that Rapha is teaming up with Team Sky became a well known fact to everyone on the 30th of August. Exciting news in many ways, as Team Sky is well-known for its high demands when it comes to quality and "marginal gains", while Rapha has managed to picture itself somewhere between the high-end manufacture line and lux. The downfall, at least for Rapha's part is considerable, as any supplier to one of Britain's top performance brands. At the same time, remember Rapha is not new to the racing stage, they have supported Rapha Condor Sharp (RCS) a pro-continental team for several years benefiting from experiences in tech drawn from there.

Much can be said and written about branding. Worldwide consultants paid by the hour compete telling us as consumers and corporations how necessary it is to be visibly out there. So what is branding? Branding is linked to many aspects; sales, marketing, strategy, storytelling, identity etc. The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines a brand as

name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of other sellers.   
Therefore, it is logical to link psychology to branding, to get consumers to believe that a product/brand is the only one that can meet the standards or solve my "problem."

Upwards, downwards or sideways
It didn't take long before both Team Sky boss Brailsford and Rapha CEO Simon Mottram released the usual carefully written statements surely approved at multiple levels in both organisations. Usually I'm not that interested in them, as many tend to be "attributed quotes" as the eminent Inner Ring has written about earlier.

How will the deal between Sky and Rapha affect consumers?

Yesterday I tweeted exactly that, mentioning that I look forward seeing what will happen to the brand. I must admit I like the brand. The way they have build their brand along the years, particularly the stories and pictures. I also have some clothing, very happy with some of it, not so with every piece of clothing.

When a manufacture sponsor a team, there surely (as well as hopefully) there will be an increase in sales. That's the point in the first place, right? Rapha has managed to link itself somewhere near the lux-scale in clothing today, upscale pricing isn't, of course, in itself a sign of quality, but Rapha has managed to brand itself to that too. Based on activity on twitter when Rapha is being mentioned, it seems people either like it or hate it, not so much in between. Much of the criticism have been regarding pricing. Today, a number of Rapha products are being made in China by KTC, albeit designed in the UK. As volume increases, will we see lower prices? Claims have been made that some manufacturers have operated with one clothing-line for pros and one for the others. Of course, pros might have made to measure jerseys, as they tend to have slightly less arms than most, but if the fabrics are two very different, some people might react. My opinion is that you get what you pay for and perhaps is this the way it will and needs to be. Alex Murray called this "diffusion line" earlier today, "slightly cheaper materials/manufacture, but same look."  

What I surely think Mottram didn't expect when he co-founded the brand in 2004 is the possibility to find a replica jersey in a mobile trailer sales-out at the foot of Alpes d'Huez. Another way of viewing this is that you actually succeeded in building a great brand since people are copying your products.

What will come out of the Sky-Rapha deal will be exciting. The people behind Rapha have been very consistent and thoughtful in their branding up to now, so there is nothing indicating this will not go the way they have planned. If they are able to meet the formidable focus Sky have on R&D, details and "marginal gains". A chance like this for a manufacture is a once in a lifetime shot so why not grab it with both hands?

To us consumers? Hopefully a lower price on their products, as the volume most likely will increase. If Rapha want to differentiate between the highest end of products and the products for recreational riders, please do so. After all, as Alex Murray wrote, one can still earn lots of money on cheap(er) things: