Sunday, September 13, 2009

Racing - My Funny Season

I'm not sure where the term "funny season" came from, but it refers to the time of year when racers (in the case of bike racing) are racing for their current team with the knowledge that they'll be racing for another team next year.

It's tough to race for your own team when you're kinda sorta racing for another team.

Nowadays you can't mention who you're to race for until after September 1. Well, not really. But you sorta can. In the old days, it was different. Not so old, because the story involved Roche in his historic season in 1987. Anyway, back then, they made announcements during the Tour.

The Tour!

Imagine the confusion after a rest day spent absorbing who would race for who the next year.

"Should I chase? I mean, I should, but he'll be my team leader next year."

See, Roche signed for a new team for 1988, Fagor-MBK, one rising from the remnants of the current Fagor team. At that time he was racing for Carrera. He and a lot of the Carrera guys didn't like each other because he attacked their Italian leader in the earlier Giro d'Italia (and this on an Italian team). Although he villified his attack by eventually winning the overall, his Italian teammates didn't like this too much.

Carrera wasn't weak by any means, doing well in the TTT (I think they won) and getting one Erich Maechler into yellow. When Roche publicly declared he felt the team should let the jersey go, the team worked even harder to hold on to it. Eventually, at the first long time trial (87 kilometers!), Maechler had to step down.

By now the team was exhausted.

Roche had just one ally on the team, a faithful domestique who took the burden of doing most of the work for the rest of the race: Eddy Schepers.

Therefore, desperate to make some time up on a powerful Delgado, Roche plotted the most unlikely of attacks - one on a mountain stage, launched a feed zone, 100 km from the finish. When he needed some help in a long distance attack, he went to a somewhat unlikely source - potential teammates for 1988.

I can imagine the conversation now.

"Look, guys, I'll be heading up the team next year. I know you don't have contracts yet, so I'll tell you what. I'm going to attack at 100k to go. If you guys help me, I'll make sure I put in a good word for all of you for next year."

Four pretty decent pros look at each other. They contemplate trying to find replacement contracts, racing for whoever will pay them the pitiful wages pros commanded back then, $20 or $40k. Then they think about racing for a guy that got 3rd in last year's Tour, already won the Giro, and looked pretty good for the Tour, definitely a podium place.

(Forget about a guy that also goes on to win Worlds!)

"Okay, Stephen, we'll help you out."

And so was hatched one of the riskiest breaks ever by a modern day Tour hopeful. I'd say it was the second riskiest, after Fignon's solo stage victory in the Yellow in 1989. In 1987, though, there were some extremely strong teams still in contention, so Roche gets kudos for pulling a real knacker of a move.

Note all the Fagor racers in the break?
Video from socalrider909's YouTube account

Skipping the feed, the aggressors set out. For about 100 km the unlikely break rolled on, four Fagor racers pulling their hearts out.

Eventually, though, the break faltered, with one of the strongest ever PDM teams helping Delgado's powerful Reynolds team chase. Of course they caught the break at the base of the last climb, and Delgado almost immediately attacked.

Roche tried to recover, waiting until 5 k to go before he went all out. In the heroic finish above, Roche clawed his way back and stayed in contention.

Schepers was the ultimate domestique, literally in tears when he learned of Roche's difficulty at La Plagne. He swore he'd be at Roche's side the next day, and he was, watching Roche solo off the front of the group to take a valuable 18 seconds out of Delgado on a tricky descent into the finish.

Roche eventually won the Tour by a scant 40 seconds, went on to win Worlds while working for his friend Sean Kelly, but then faltered badly. He really never raced again, a fragile knee preventing his return to the top. He turned to driving VIP cars (and well, apparently, since he also raced rallies) and supporting his son, Nicolas, and perhaps his nephew Dan Martin.

What's all this mean?

Well, nothing really. It's just a cool video and an interesting story, the first year of "collusions" I knew about. The first collusion I knew about actually happened earlier in the Tour - Roche got the yellow when System U and him ganged up on Jean-Francois Bernard and attacked just after a long, thin stretch of road. Bernard happened to flat at the same time and found himself losing a few minutes on the stage.

Right. Funny season. My funny season.

This is the first time I've been off the bike for so long since 1983. I once took 3 weeks off, yes, but never four. Or five. This is definitely a funny season for me, for other reasons.

But team-wise...

Let it be known that for 2010 I'll be joining a new team, Exposition Wheelmen. It's not really a "new" new team, it's more like a resurrection of the old Expo Wheelmen, kind of like how Carpe Diem Racing returned after a short absence.

I can't divulge any contract details, but suffice it to say that I'm paying a lot of money to race for the team.

A lot.

Oh, wait. They're supposed to pay me money. How did I get roped into this. Hm. Well, I'll let you know when I figure it out.

Since I'm still incapable of riding a bike, or even driving a car, you won't find me "helping out" future teammates at the races this year. No odd efforts at the front, no puzzling bridges to a break. No huge break 100k to go.

Not that you'd see that anyway.

Next year, though, with everything in full swing, it should be a different story.

See you out there.


No One Line said...

Oh man oh man. Roche's climb to 'La Plagne is one of my favorites, but I didn't know that excellent story behind it.

I laughed out loud when I read, "I'm going to attack at 100k to go. If you guys help me, I'll make sure I put in a good word for all of you for next year," because it sounds so outlandish.

Thanks for sharing this one.

And best wishes for ongoing recovery.

Jim R. said...

The '87 tour is still my favorite with '89 a close second.

Aki said...

Yeah, the Fagor story is interesting. So is the attack on JF Bernard. That had a kind of surreal kind of feel to it - the TV coverage caught the panic, the strung out field, etc. He punctured just when Roche and System U attacked, and although he got right back into the field, the field was trickling through a choke spot. Terrible day for JF.

I think 87 was fought well. It means the race was nerve wracking for the racers. 89, although dramatic, was a bit more negative. Fignon attacked left and right and Delgado did some good moves.

What's nice about those days is that when the pace got tough, the same guys ended up at the front again and again. It wasn't by accident that the top 5 guys were in a break in one of the latter stages. Imagine the top 5 guys in any Grand Tour in a break now? With maybe one extra teammate? Never would happen.