An Amusement & Diversion for The Genteel Cyclist. Daily.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Notes on the state of my "pro cycling journalism"

OK, so we're back. I covered the Nature Valley Grand Prix again this year for VeloNews, and it was -- as ever -- a hoot. Those athletes are something to see, and one of the pleasures of covering it with a MEDIA laminate hanging on my neck, is that it gives me an opportunity to run around talking to as many of them as I can. Being a shy and introverted person who makes a lot of bold and brash statements from behind my little screen and keyboard (we used to call this "cocking off" in the dark days before the Interwebs) this poses some interesting challenges. And it provokes a couple of interesting thoughts.


  • Isn't it strange that Kristin Armstrong is completely unrelated to Lance, and yet dominates the pro women's field as much -- or even more -- than her male predecessor? Isn't that kind of a strange coincidence?


  • CyclingNews.com's Kristin Robbins is a former pro bike racer turned journalist who cranks out the copy and gets the story straight, often from the mouths of the racers themselves. She knows which breaks were key, she gets inside strategy, and basically can spin a perfect yarn around any given race. That's what happens when you have her connections and history, and when you practice your craft 50-weeks out of the year. I think she's likely the best workaday journalist covering the domestic pro calendar, and I know that all the riders read her pretty closely.

  • Robbins is also connected with Colavita/Sutter Home, one of the big pro teams on both the men's and women's side, where she has worked PR and media relations. In trad journalistic circles, that would be seen as working both the dark side and the legit side, but I can't see how that's much of a problem. Maybe if she had something ticklish to write about, some kind of major scandal within the ranks of her employers (The chamois butter is Canola-based! OMFG!) , then she'd be in a pickle. But frankly I think her longterm association with pro cycling is aces, and it's not like the domestic pro peloton is festering with secrets and intrigue. And if it is, it's probably just those goofy Aussies who wreck every after-party with their drunken derbying.

  • I myself felt a little compromised in a couple of ways. First, it's great to cover this race year to year, but I'm at a significant disadvantage to folks like Kristin, Amy Smolens, and Kent Gordis (more about them in a second). Without regularly following the pro schedule in person, I don't have instant mental access to the general trends -- who's riding strong right now, who's injured, what happened at the Reading Classic last weekend, where is the peloton headed to next. True, I could stay on top of that stuff, but you know how it is. How much of your free time do you spend reading books that will help you do your part-time job better? (Part time as in about 20 hours per year.) But more than all that publicly available data, it's the inside information that would really help: the team directors personal cell numbers, the hard-working promoters, the USCF officials. I could get my sweaty mits on all that stuff, if I were more tenacious and anal and generally type-A.

  • Another way that I was compromised in a more obvious way, relative to being an "objective journalist," was that I'd agreed to help out with the NVGP this year on the volunteer side-- I stood in to provide "race radio," which means riding in one of the officials cars and relating all available and relevant information about the race back to the team cars: You announce breaks, you call up cars to provide support to their riders, you give warnings about situations on the road-- loose gravel, railroad tracks, hard turns, the time gaps and the numbers of the riders in them, and so on. This is an ideal position to be in to try to reconstruct a race, incidentally, and by far the best place in the world to be. (One of the motos at the head of the peloton would be a slightly more advantageous place, but it would be hell to take notes. Truly at well-covered events like the Tour De France, television viewers have by far the best seat in the house. Those moto-guys with their cameras are amazing athletes in their own right.) I'm a terrible note taker, but I have an awesome memory for details-- what the course looked and felt like, how the peloton is behaving, what their mood appears to be, and so on. But I have almost no memory whatsoever about anything numerical or mathematical. Sometimes I think I'm a little dyslexic. Or maybe just an idiot savant, without the savant part. So it can be a significant challenge to take good legible notes about what happens during a race. The best way, in the end, is to make sure you get the numbers of the riders, the time gaps, and the portion of the course. No need to worry about teams or individuals until afterward, when you can reconstruct the race like a baseball box score. (You really can tell the story of a ball game, at least in broad strokes, from reading a box score, if you know what you're doing.) The officials I rode with in the Mankato Stage were brilliantly talented at remembering numbers, instantly editing them in order to read them back and confirm in ascending order-- meanwhile, I'm not sure I got about a third of those numbers even right. Luckily, the officials have a very redundant system of reading and confirming the numbers of any riders making a move or needing help or what ever.

  • So anyway, I wondered: Working for the race and covering it would not pass the smell test of traditional journalism. But I didn't get paid, and it was actually a way of doing my job "out loud" and in service of the peloton and their support. Plus I only did it for one stage: The official kicked me out of the car in Canon Falls (I'd arranged to have someone else do radio tour that day because of the "smell test" issue.) If you want to see the difference between covering a race from inside an officials car versus covering it from the lawn at the finish line, you can read the Canon Falls report and compare it to Mankato.

  • I'm not sure who, incidentally, really cares about the fine details of every little attack and every little 5 second gap, but maybe a lot of people are interested. Surely the riders and their sponsors would love to get every mention they can-- that's the business side of pro cycling, the pro part of pro cycling. Press coverage is PR. It's the reason companies like Colavita and Jelly Belly support cycling the way they do (though it very often has to do with a particularly enthusiastic cycling fan or amateur athlete high in the ranks of those companies marketing departments).

  • If Kristin Robbins is the best "print" journalist working the domestic pro cycling scene, then Amy Smolens and Kent Gordis are surely the best on the broadcast side-- and more purely "journalists" in the traditional sense. Both self-employed, they cover many of the world's biggest cycling events from the Olympics to World Championships to the Tour de France to-- well, to the Nature Valley Grand Prix. It's a real honor to be chasing those two around and hoping just a tiny bit of their knowledge and expertise rubs off on a pretender like me. I envy them their expertise, but I definitely don't envy them their travel schedule. They live in hotels and airports and in rental cars, and probably have zip for a social life, and probably don't get to see their families very much. I don't think I could handle that trade-off very well, so there you go. That's the moral of the story: trade-offs.
  • Finally -- for now anyway -- I hope that my work this year conveyed one thing most of all: What an astonishing athlete Kristin Armstrong really is. She's one of those athletes that establish whole eras. You know, before Kristin Armstrong and (inevitably) after Kristin Armstrong. And in many ways she personifies why pro cycling is really fun to cover as a journalist. She may be the best female cyclist in history -- the XX-chromosome Eddy Merckx (the Eddy Merckx with two X's, ha ha), and that's no exaggeration. Naturally, she's a cannibal on the road in every stage of every race, a take-no-prisoners kind of competitor. And yet she's so modest and approachable off the bike, taking extra care with media parasites like myself, almost looking for children and begging to meet them and sign autographs. She recognizes fans and makes friends with them. She wins the most competitive domestic races virtually alone, with no team, putting minutes into a field that is otherwise separated by seconds. She is head, shoulders, hips and thighs above any of her nearest competitors -- and yet you could never hope to meet someone more down to earth. If you never have the pleasure of seeing her race, you are missing a historical opportunity. An historical opportunity.

  • Pinch Flat News is about bike culture. Less and less, maybe, as I just don't find the time to devote to it that I should or did. Several people approached me during the race to tell me how much they enjoyed the cyclocross coverage last fall, and I had to admit that I had "burned a lot of matches" on that coverage. Maybe I'll hit my stride again this fall, I don't know. Mainly, I just don't get a lot of feedback or ROI for goofing off here as I do, and I realize that's all a get-what-you-give deal, but you know. See "trade-offs" above. I get a lot of return for hanging with my amazing kids, making my Thursday night dirt ride, and occasionally, you know, showing up for the dayjob.

  • Is pro cycling a part of bike culture? Definitely. It's a bit removed from the world of advocacy and spoke cards and mess bags full of PBR and clownish couch bikes, and there are elements of it that seem incredibly decadent and wasteful. The carbon footprint of any given race is gigantic, with all the huge vehicles chugging around the country just to put on a show of a couple hundred hardbodies in funny skinsuits. Decadent indeed. I was super bummed to see how the peloton threw water bottles this year during the extra hot Mankato stage, littering every little farmyard with plastic, stopping in front of a little ranch house to have a group nature break and whipping it out in full view of a little ranch house with a picture window -- when 100 meters up the road there was 5 miles of uninterrupted cornfields. Whatever. I just mention it because bike racing is still pretty exotic in rural America. To see the looks on the faces of these humble and generous people standing in their years to watch the show, and then to have their children literally pelted with litter, and their lawns urinated on by about 100 men-- well, I was embarrassed. I really was. Call me a puss. I know a lot of the guys could give a crap -- they're animals during a race, and that's fine. I'm just saying. There is actually a rule in place in Minnesota that riders are supposed to be fined for throwing their bottles. It's actually a matter of life-and-death-and-taxes, because livestock that eat plastic bottles can and do die. Any idea what a head of beef costs a farmer? Let's just say it's worth more than a handful of those fancy carbon bikes with Dura-Ace and Zippy wheelsets, and when they autopsy that Black Angus and find the shard of plastic that pierced the animal's intestines, and it has the words "Team Bissell Pro Bike Racing," what do you think their view is? Don't kid yourself: one head of beef is every bit as important to a farmers' livelihood as three or four bikes are to Team Health Net presented by Maxxis. I was chagrined that the officials made no effort to enforce this rule, although I announced it several times to the caravan on race radio. Maybe it's unrealistic, I don't know. And maybe the worst that will happen is that a few angry farmers will refuse to honor the road closures (which would not necessarily be all that harmless, come to think of it), or they'll just pull their shades. Whatever. I just know -- having grown up riding my bike around Mankato and knowing how little sympathy and understanding there is out there in that beautiful rolling and windy country -- that the last thing everyday cyclists need is less sympathy for our sport.

5 comments:

Mr. Race Radio...for the ladies! said...

Amen to all of that, my friend. I've been thinking a lot lately about how feasible it is to do more than one thing well at once with your life.

BTW, it was Bill Frissell playing "Heard it Through the Grapevine."

Skibby said...

pinchie,
I felt the same way about the bottle tossing and pissing, it seemed to be worse at Mankato Saturday, even worse than last year. We had only rolled out a few minutes when BJM stopped and pissed in somebody's front yard in Kato. The thing that gets me is that they toss half full water bottles then 15 minutes later they have to call their car up for a feed. Morons....

The driver

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