Ever since the missus was selected to be on the Slipstream team in the 2008 Tour de France knit-a-long (Tour de France KAL, the 2009 version here), I've been a slightly more interested follower of Jonathan Vaughter's ProTour team.
Okay, I admit that when TIAA-CREF (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association - College Retirement Equities Fund) initially sponsored the team, I took notice, because not only does TIAA-CREF have one of the largest err... "tons and tons of money invested in them", they were created to benefit education folks like teachers and professors. I figure that's a good thing.
Plus they were clients of one of my former employers, the first company I worked for after the shop closed. I've visited TIAA-CREF's offices for onsite work, one of the first times I was "in the field". And a friend of mine worked for them for a long time, ultimately convincing me to invest with them.
Oh, I should put a disclaimer out. I invested some of my savings with TIAA-CREF.
Okay, that should do it.
One of Vaughter's main stances has to do with doping. Or, in his case, not doping. I always thought that if Slipstream (eventually evolving to its current team Garmin-Slipstream) raced clean, they'd race at a disadvantage because, frankly, I figured there were too many dopers out there. Initially Vaughter's team didn't seem very strong. I mean, yeah, they were strong in the US, but they struggled with any bigger races. We didn't see, for example, a TIAA-CREF racer standing on the podium at Philly.
But as more and more (non-Garmin) riders got caught doping, Vaughter's team seemed to be doing better and better.
In 2008 they made a huge breakthrough with Christian Vande Velde's 5th in the Tour. Later that year, at Interbike, he actually held the missus's KnitALong project and smiled puzzledly for the camera with the missus, so he really made the news here at our household. In 2009 they surprised the masses with the epitome of the anti-doper, Bradley Wiggins, and his 4th in the Tour, along with Vande Velde's 8th place.
I should point out that I also like Garmin because they signed Danny Pate, who I've always admired. I've wished for him to take some big win but it hasn't happened yet.
Anyway, recently, in August 2009, the team's been making headlines with their sprinter Tyler Farrar. Until now, Farrar's been known for being second all the time. Now, to be fair, he won a field sprint ahead of the year's best known sprinter, Mark Cavendish, earlier in the year, but other than that, he's been just a touch back from the win.
So I felt happy for them when I read about Farrar's big win in Germany. Then he started winning stage after stage after stage in ENECO, a flat (to pros) stage race. (Mind you, some of those climbs considered "flat" are really hard, so although there are no mountains, it's not necessarily "easy").
After the second last stage, Farrar had 2nd in the points competition locked up, he sat 2nd overall, and with a 14 kilometer (8.2 mile) time trial left...
He abandoned the race.
When I saw the headline, I thought maybe he hurt something earlier and it got to the point where he was going bad. He'd gotten third in the last sprint, and although that's really good, it wasn't another win. And once you win, folks (like me) expect a win, especially in the same race against the same guys.
Anyway, Farrar pulled out of the race, but neither he nor the team gave any signs of why, except "to prepare for the Vuelta".
Not only that, but Wiggins, after setting best time at the first check point, sat up hard as soon as it started to rain, and actually DNF'ed the race, pulling off the course before crossing the finishline.
As a Cat 3 and a "never been a director", I don't have any experience in the ProTour scene. Nor can I claim to know any of the riders or team personnel involved.
But pulling out before or during an 8.2 mile time trial, a flat one, seems a bit excessive, even for a conservative team like Garmin.
If I were looking to save my guys for the Vuelta (which starts at the end of this week), and we had just a short time trial left, I'd approach it a bit differently. I'd acknowledge the fact that Farrar and any Vuelta team member would need a break, so they wouldn't be riding too hard.
I'd understand not starting the stage if it were a 200 km road stage, or a 30 km TT stage. But it's a 14 km TT, through city streets, and Farrar at least was sitting way up on GC.
In fact, Farrar had 2nd place totally sewn up in the points competition. I'm making an assumption that there was some prize money and UCI points there (maybe not?). If he made the TT time cut, he'd have been on the points podium for the overall and collected some money (for the team if not himself) and whatever else you get for 2nd in the points..
If he finished 3 minutes down on the winner, he'd place 36th overall. Not great compared to 2nd, but not bad for an "easy" time trial. Oddly enough, if he finished 2 minutes down, he'd finish in the same spot, because there's a huge gap between 35th and 36th place. Whatever, the point is that he could ride a relatively slow TT and still finish inside the top 40.
As an illustration after the fact, Cozza, his teammate, finished 5:50 down in last place, but inside the time cut. According to my brief calculations, he averaged 22.5 mph for the race. Even for the most technical flat course, that is a slower ride. Had Farrar done a similar ride, he'd have gotten 2nd in the points and stood on the podium.
Now, in the past, when riders doing reasonably well suddenly pull out of a stage race, it's because some stuff happened behind the scenes. The biggie would be that maybe the rider got a letter from the doping authorities. I really hope this wasn't the case, as I actually believe Garmin is racing clean. I may be innocent and naive in saying that, but that's my story and I'm sticking with it.
Being sick is a huge possibility. Maybe Farrar's coming down with something, and they want to get him better before the Vuelta. This seems most likely because a team will be hush hush about sickness, especially when it affects a team leader. You may argue that Farrar isn't the team leader, but until the races start climbing big hills, they're working for him.
(This would not explain Wiggin's DNF though.)
A racer may pull out if, say, he's experiencing some conflict with the team. This is the height of the "silly season", the time before racers and teams announce transfers for next year. Is Farrar trying to make a point? Or maybe the director? I don't know.
Maybe they disagreed with the race organizers over something. But if they did, they could pull all their riders out, not just their good ones.
On their site, they claim that they pulled out for safety first.
But to me that doesn't do it. Unless something freaky happened, I have to believe that a 22.5 mph time trial would be relatively safe. They could have done it on regular road bikes, even fat tired Paris Roubaix wheels. Maybe they'd look a bit odd, but they could explain it as, "Well, it was this or pull out of the race."
In the Tour of Pennsylvania, the organizers had to stop the last stage of the race due to a local tornado watch/warning. After some confusion, for safety's sake, the organizers neutralized the race for GC (so it wouldn't change), they nixed the prize list (it would be donated to a charity), and they stated that if anyone got lapped, they'd be considered a finisher.
Only a few teams soldiered on - Kelly Benefits, the Felt team (Garmin's feeder squad), Waste Management (Jelly Belly's feeder squad), a few others. They were professional in their attitude, doing a good race, really going for it. There were multiple crashes towards the end of the race, taking out guys outside of the top GC.
The guys kept going.
TV coverage for one thing. It was the first time Versus covered a bike race live. Afterwards, a TV viewer said he didn't realize that 2/3 of the field had dropped out after the restart.
I suppose another was doing a race for the folks that had showed up to watch.
They wanted the prizes. ToPA paid a lot of money for the overall and the teams could use that nice budget infusion.
And finally, at some level, this gave back to the promoter. The main sponsor's headquarters were just down the road (well, across the bridge) and there were a bunch of VIPs around. A few directors made sure that the VIPS had a race to watch.
Now, I'm not saying that Garmin should have driven their boys hard, or that they should try and win the TT. I'm saying that if you have a few riders going to the TT, that means you have some team vehicles and such going there anyway. Bring along Farrar, stick him on his road bike, and have him do a pathetically slow TT. Collect 2nd for the points jersey. At least have Wiggins finish the TT. What will happen in the Vuelta if it rains in the TT there? Here he could give it a little gas and see how the bike works on wet city streets.
Whatever the reason, it'll be interesting to see if any new stories come out from the end of ENECO. It's a pity Farrar didn't contest the overall, and failing that, at least ride the few miles necessary to take 2nd in the points.
Hopefully all this caution makes sense in the Vuelta. We'll see after a month how things turn out.