Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cycling 101

Welcome, Cycling Newbies!: So, Versus is miraculously showing a bike race on actual American TV, you've set out some chips and beer and are ready to watch, and yet all you know about cycling is that American Lance Armstrong kicked limp French @#$ 7 straight times after battling back from cancer and inspiring a generation of young athletes to want to grow up and date rock stars, and oh yeah, some Mennonite guy made us look like a bunch of dirtbags and worse, morons, for taking drugs then winning a race right in front of everybody the very next year. Well, there's so more more to know and love about this sport, and frankly, it helps if you understand exactly why it's interesting for the 6 hours before the winner even crosses the finish line. So to help you on your way to enlightenment, I humbly present this highly incomplete Cycling Dictionary:

Allez, Allez!: What you yell at the Tour de France at the riders as they pass you by, unless you're American, in which case you wear huge cowboy hats or paint your beer gut with the American flag and scream in English, humiliating us all.

Autobus: the @#$-end of the *peloton*. This is where the guys who can't keep up in any particular stage grind along in misery with some jerkface on a scooter ramming a camera up their sweating miserable nose for the sole purpose of abusing them on the news that night. On a mountain stage, it's generally the *sprinters*, who have a lot of heavy carcass to schlep up an Alp; in the flats, it's the tiny little *climbers*, who get whacked around by the wind like raindrops in a nor'easter.

Breakaway: When an individual or small group takes off on their own ahead of the main group, in the unlikely event that they'll be allowed to stay away and take the win. Great chance for the camera to focus on the garish logo on your butt, to the delight of your check-writing sponsor. If you're a threat on the day to a big name or in a long stage race to an overall contender, you'll get chased down by the group, sometimes within moments of the line. If you're not, and you don't *crack*, congratulations! You just took a win.

Classics: some of the oldest, most beautiful, and most prestigious races on earth. Some races to know: Paris-Nice (Race to the Sun), Paris-Roubaix (the Hell of the North). Many of the best of these riders are superdomestiques or stage winners in the *Grand Tours*.

Climbers: twee little mountain goats who can climb six Alps in a day and get there first. Sometimes bigger, but generally only if they're *Grand Tour* contenders for the overall. Notable: We love Roberto Heras; Michael "the Chicken" Rasmussen; everyone from Euskaltel-Euskadi.

Crack: I've been lauded in the press for weeks as a threat for the win. This stage is the key to my success on this earth. But oh crap! I'm exhausted and can barely turn over the pedals at this point--I'm straggling off the back end of even the autobus--I've cracked. Don't, for the love of God, read the sports pages tomorrow, especially if you're Belgian and at the top of your game every other day this season.

Continental teams: the second tier of bike teams, behind the *ProTour*. More likely factors in their own countries' races, you're probably here on your way up, or on your way out, until this year, when you've been blacklisted by the big teams over doping, and hired by one of the newer Continental squads who want your tainted carcass anyway.

Crash: yep, the cringe-inducing clips you see again and again. Causes: melting tar; misjudged turns; touch of the wheels in the peloton; some clown interfering with your line in the last few yards of a sprint. Recent of note that isn't too tragic to mention here: poor George Hincapie, headed for the win at Paris-Roubaix until his steerer tube snapped going over the cobbles in a disastrous mechanical.

the Devil: yes, yes, the Prince of Darkness; also, I swear, an elderly gent who dresses like him, running beside the riders at every single European race and shaking his trident and yelling. Apparently, he's got sponsors now, and has a nice new van with logos all over it.

Directeur Sportif: basically, your non-rider team leader, who sets the strategy and can make or break your career at least on that team. Often brilliant ex-racers themselves, they will throw you under the bus in two seconds if you test positive for dope no matter who told you to take it.

Domestique: helper riders, sort of like drones, except they can completely crush every single other athlete on earth except maybe the guy they're helping out, and probably then in other races anyway. Common duties: killing themselves setting a blistering pace to tire out other threats to their *team leader*; going back to the *team car* for food and drinks for their teammates; riding in front of their team leader to take the brunt of the wind so he can sit on their wheel in the slipstream and conserve energy.

Doping: more on this in other posts, but if you're a naive purist, you think this is the aberrational amorality of a select few mercenaries who are ruining the sport with their selfishness; if you're a paranoid conspiracy theorist, you think everyone's taking everything and the riders are but pawns in a chess game played from on high; and if you're a typical European fan, you don't see the fuss, and my it's hot waiting for the peloton on the mountainside today, is there any more wine back there in the cooler?

Feed zone: lunchtime! It's on the fly. *Soigneurs* stand by and hand out *musettes* and you eat as you ride. Occasionally, a minor snafu will occur, and an errant mobile lunch bag will tangle in someone's bike, setting them into a rage.

General Classification: The overall lead. There are individual stages within longer races, and you technically needn't even win one to take the GC, so long as you place well consistently, though usually this is not the case.

Grand Tour: there are three, and you haven't heard of two of 'em: the Giro d'Italia in May; the Tour de France in July; and the Vuelta a Espana in August. Their organizers, and those of the *classics* are currently in a nasty battle over which *ProTour* teams get to ride them when. Names to know: comely Discovery pinup/'06 Giro winner Ivan Basso; endless Lance nemesis Jan Ullrich; '06 Vuelta champ/blowing it off for the Tour this year Alexander Vinokorouv; Alejandro Valverde; Gilberto Simoni. Allez allez!

Jersey: in the Grand Tours, different ones denote King of the Mountains, Points leader (determined by your placing at little sprints at various points in the course), Young Rider, *General Classification* (the overall leader). Overall is Maglia Rosa (pink) for the Giro, Maillot Jaune (yellow) for the Tour; Maillot d'Oro (gold) for the Vuelta.

Lead-Out: the set up by a group of racers ahead of a sprint for their team leader. It's all about the last two k, baby. They set the pace for the final run to the line, keep their boy enough in front to have a chance but not so much in front that he tires too early, get him in position on the road, then get the hell out of the way.

Mechanic: be nice to him, especially because your bloated salary is the reason he's not paid nearly enough. These guys are geniuses, and a mechanical or flat at the wrong time can absolutely lose you the race. No podium babes, no champagne, no glory, but hopefully the satisfaction of a job well done.

Musette: the little cloth lunch bags that sling over your shoulder like messenger bags that riders get in the *feed zone*, typically filled with real food like little pastries, fruit, and sandwiches instead of the disgusting gels and other energy crap you'd expect. Discarded by the side of the road, these are highly prized souvenirs by those of us who think a sweat-stained bag filled with half-eaten food from a top rider is really, truly a gift tossed by the gods.

Operacion Puerto: the preeminent doping scandal of 2006, and not the one that tripped up Floyd Landis. Liberty Seguros, how could you?

Peloton: the main body of riders and the most dangerous spot in the race; also called the "main field". These guys are riding inches apart, and frequently crash with disastrous and occasionally career-ending results. Watch for a team to literally surround their leader like a cocoon to protect him from jostling by other teams, and keep him towards the front out of the way.

Podium Babes: if you're a guy and you win, you get a photo op with two models, champagne you can spray, and your trophy. You can't fraternize with the racers, even if you wanted to with a guy who's just sweated in spandex for six hours, though George Hincapie recently married an ex one. If you're a woman racer, you don't get Podium Babes of any gender, but then, you barely get paid either so it's the least of your troubles.

ProTour: a nascent organization of top teams that pretty much everyone hates, but the upshot is it's the best teams and the best riders, with the biggest sponsors and the deepest pockets.
Premier US team: Discovery, Lance's team, which just pulled its sponsorship. Others we love: CSC, Euskaltel-Euskadi.

Soigneur: manservant to the best riders on earth. Fill bottles, pack/hand out food, do everything else.

Sponsors: the corporation that pays your bills and makes you wear garish spandex. You have to remember to zip up your jersey as you cross the line if you win, which is quite a trick in a hotly-disputed sprint, or else your sponsor will go postal that you've blown the publicity that justifies your inconsequential billboard existence.

Sprinter: just what he sounds like. Sprints are generally flat stages. Guys to know: Milram's Alessandro Petacchi and we love Erik Zabel; Ag2R's Thor Hushovd; Quick Step's babelicious Tom Boonen.

Stage Races: often 5 to 7 days, there are lots of these. Nice to win: Deutschland Tour; Tour de Suisse; US's spankin' new Amgen Tour of California. If you're a pig like Lance Armstrong, you'll basically flip off your ex-superdomestique Floyd Landis when you pass him on a stage. Watch for: we love Discovery's Levi Leipheimer, Jan Ullrich.

Superdomestique: No man is an island. This guy will win or lose you the big races; the man who would be a team leader anywhere else. Examples: former Lance lieutenant big George Hincapie; we love CSC's Jens Voigt.

Team Car: You've got a mic to it. It has your team manager for strategy and encouragement, a doctor who will patch you up after a fall while you're riding, a mechanic to change your wheel in 5 seconds or give you a new bike; and a guy who will hand you food and drinks. Can ride right next to the stage leader; otherwise, you've got to schlep to the end of the peloton to get back to them.

Team Doctor: well, there's the team doctor, and there's the nonteam doctor you see on the sly. Neither are in great repute at the moment.

Tifosi: Italian for fans. You paint your favorite's name on the road; hold up banners lauding riders both dead and alive; give a discreet push to a zonked-out rider as he slogs uphill; throw water over them to cool them at your own risk; hand out newspaper at the top of the mountain to protect the boys from the wind on the downhill, which they cram in their jerseys; and stick your digital camera out blindly into the course, taking out an occasional rider with a busted nose to the distinct displeasure of both the rider and the *directeur sportif*. Fans to love: Belgians, who have perhaps the proudest history of cycling on earth; Euskaltel-Euskadi's band of orange-clad Basque fanatics.

Time Trial: a race against the clock in an excruciating position on a hard-to-control bike. Getting to the point where if you can't master this, you're off the podium at the Grand Tours. Of note: we love CSC's Dave Zabriskie; Floyd Landis but not this year; Levi Leipheimer; current world champ Fabian Cancellara.

World Championships: separate disciplines for road and time trial. All year, you get to wear the World Champion jersey for races in that field. Names to know: we love current road world champ/winner in every terrain Paolo Bettini; Tom Boonen again; Oscar Freire.

All right, there's lots more, but I'm watching the Tour of California. Allez!

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