Tour of Ireland on Versus: Why Bother?

Hey, the Tour of Ireland looks like an interesting race. Our current drive-by shooting has to do with the way Versus put the thing on the air. The network allotted an hour and a half to the race’s first three stages, all won in bunch sprints by Team Columbia’s Mark Cavendish.

Then came the decisive stages, last Saturday and Sunday. Versus allotted the same 90 minutes total to air both stages. Saturday’s ride included the picturesque and insanely narrow Conor Pass road and a loop out the Dingle Peninsula to Slea Head (hey: we walked most of this route in 1973, but that’s another story). Sunday’s finale began in Killarney and finished with a tough circuit in Cork.

The net result of jamming those two stages into one shortish broadcast was a horribly edited series of race glimpses. What was supposed to come across as a cohesive narrative of two race days came across as a chaotic and disjointed montage in which it was impossible to tell where the racers were, where groups and individuals were on the course or relative to each other. Of course, none of that stopped resident jabberers Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett from filling time with meaningless prattling about the beautiful Irish countryside and the Kingdom of Kerry.

But the broadcast was not without its charms. Charm One was a post-Stage Four interview with Cavendish. He had lost the leaders jersey after getting dropped on the Conor Pass climb. The interviewer asked him what happened. Cavendish paused, flashed a genuinely perplexed look, and said, “I got dropped.” He went on to explain that the pace set by Garmin-Chipotle’s David Millar was just too much. Charm Two was the colleens who served as podium girls. They were both taller and more robust-looking than the racers. But the truly transfixing them about them was the hideous dresses both had been given to wear. The lasses should find a solicitor and bring the designers to bar for a fashion crime of the first order.

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Journée de Repos

It’s the Tour’s last rest day, and we’re only six stages, a couple of huge days in the Alps, and two or three more positive doping tests away from the big climax on the Champs-Élysées.

Who/what has looked good so far on this year’s Tour:

Cadel Evans. I’m not a big fan; something about him seems unpleasant and cold. But you have to admire a guy who picked himself up from a serious crash and finished one stage in serious pain (he barely made it into the team van unassisted after the racing was done for the day) and comes back the next day to take the yellow jersey. Also admirable: the way he stood up to the repeated attacks of CSC and other riders during the first Alps stage on Sunday. [This just in: Bobke Strut reports on another reason to admire Evans.]

Mark Cavendish. Established himself as The Man of the 2008 Tour with four stage wins. His speed is incredible and you wonder what it would be like to ride with such crazy ferocious abandon–even in the rain!–just once. But the racing is just part of it. The few glimpses of Cavendish we caught during last year’s Tour, when he rode for Team Columbia predecessor T-Mobile, made him look like something of a pouting, prickly jerk. This year, he came across as quiet, affable, thoughtful, and honest about how tiring the Tour was becoming as it progressed. He dropped out after Stage 14 win to prepare for the Olympics. In his post-race interview, he looked exhausted and profoundly sad about having gotten dropped on the last climb of the day and missing the chance for another win.

Jens Voigt. The German attack and pace-making machine for CSC. His efforts are impressive as always and the Versus interviews have shown him to be a funny but fearless competitor.

Robby Ventura and Frankie Andreu. Both have been excellent in their analyst/interviewer roles for Versus. For my money, it’s time to put Team Liggett/Sherwen out to pasture and put this pair in the traces.

Christian Vande Velde. A Chicago native has to love a Chicago native who’s doing great in the Tour. I’d be crazier about him, but there’s something a little flat in his interviews. And face it: Though he has managed to hang in with some of the hardest men in the sport for two-thirds of the Tour, he hasn’t once shown the ability to take the race away from any of them.

The doping bloggers: You can’t tell the dopers without a scorecard, and you can’t make sense out of what’s happening with all this EPO and CERA and A samples and B samples and the rest of the dopage shiz-nit without reading Trust But Verify and Rant Your Head Off. You really can’t.

Who/what hasn’t looked so good on this year’s Tour:

The Tour anti-doping crusade: Three riders have been strung up so far this year. Hey, maybe they did take the stuff. But we yearn for a world in which purity of essence and ideals of athletic perfection might skip the lynching party and exist side-by-side with plain ol’ American due process.

The Versus anti-doping crusade. You know, the last people I need to tell me about the evils of doping in sports are the people who have spent the last umpteen years celebrating absolutely anyone who’s a winner. The network’s new anti-doping religion is just another way to a buck. (And note, another one of the Versus attractions, thugs in cages (or mixed martial arts to those who want to legitimize the “sport”), is gaining widespread attention now because of the widespread use of steroids and controlled substances by its practitioners.) Screw the dopers. Screw Versus.

The Roll/Liggett/Sherwen anti-doping crusade. The finger-wagging and tongue-clucking and high-pitched moralizing is unbecoming, guys. Especially when you’re berating so many riders who in past years you anointed as heroes or near-saints.

The Liggett/Sherwen play-by-play team. In a way, it’s unfair to lump Paul Sherwen in with Phil Liggett. Paul actually has some insights into the race and occasionally manages to deliver them. Phil is merely a fount of verbiage and misinformation. (OK, yes–we live for the moments when he delivers himself of a colorful malapropism.) We loved the way that between the two of them they couldn’t manage to figure out who had assumed the yellow jersey after Stage 15 — even after a good 20 minutes.

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The ‘Last Kilometer’ Rule

When yellow jersey Stefan Schumacher fell near the end of Stage 6 yesterday, the Versus announcers (Liggett and Sherwen) started talking about the special rules that apply for a stage finish. Liggett noted that it looked like Schumacher would fall back in the standings, but that “it depends on how the judges read the last-kilometer rule.” Sherwen responded, “I’ve got a funny feeling, Phil, we may well see they will not apply the kilometer rule on a climb like this, because this is a mountain-top finish.”

The rule–Article 20 in the Tour de France regulations–applies to the last three kilometers of most Tour stages. It is designed to prevent riders from being penalized if they get caught up in the mayhem of a bunch finish (or suffer some other accident) at the end of the race. The rule (in full below) provides that if a rider falls or flats or has his bike break in the last three kilometers, he will be awarded the same time as the group he was in when the problem occurred (the only catch: he need to be able to cross the finish line to be credited that time).

But there are a couple wrinkles. The rule does not apply to individual time trials. And Sherwen was right: the 2008 version of the rules (96-page PDF file in French with English translation) specify that the rule does not apply to the four stages this year (the sixth–yesterday’s– the 10th, 15th, and 17th) that have summit finishes. Article 20 does seem to give some room for interpretation: at one point, it allows for “exceptional cases” to be ruled upon by the Tour’s committee of stewards. But the article also seems to flatly state that it doesn’t apply to the specified stages.

Here’s the English text of the rule:

Article 20

Stage finishes are signalled by a “red flame” (flamme rouge) hanging from the inflatable arch located one kilometre from the finishing line. In the event that the finishing portal is absent, the finish is signalled by a black and white chequered flag waved by a race official.

In the event that a rider or riders suffer a fall, puncture or mechanical incident in the last 3 kilometres and such an incident is duly recognised, the rider or riders involved are credited with the same finishing time of the rider or riders they were with at the time of the incident. The are attributed this ranking only upon crossing the finish line. If after a fall, it is impossible for a rider to cross the finish line, he is given the ranking ranking of last in stage.

For exceptional cases, the decision taken by the stewards committee is final.

This measure does not apply to:

Finishes of the 4th and 20th stages, which are individual time trials.

Summit finishes of the 6th, 10th, 15th, and 17th stages.

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TV Tour de Crud

I bray every July about Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, our English-language TV announcers-for-life of the Tour de France. It’s not just the cliched, empty language they use–granted, it was charming once upon a time–it’s their tendency to miss big moments in the race and to make assertions that are simply wrong.

To really appreciate how terrible these guys are, though, it’s necessary to tune in to the Tour of California coverage that their network, Versus, is airing each night. The main problem I have is that Paul and Phil have no concept of the race geography or terrain. Thus on last night’s Stage Two show, Sherwen spouted off about “the long straight roads of the Napa Valley” as the leading racers were shown speeding down the long, straight roads of the Central Valley, on the outskirts of Sacramento. Cycling fans hear constantly about how the racers themselves ride the course to get to know it. You’d think that the guys broadcasting this stuff could at least drive the course so they might get a feel for what’s going on; but there’s no evidence they or the producers take such a rudimentary step. Instead, they just talk over the edited video of the race and spout off. In yesterday’s stage, much of which I’ve ridden many times myself, it was obvious they had no idea where the action was taking place or what was to come. It’s just lazy, lazy, lazy crap.

That’s not the only problem with the Versus coverage, though. The stages have been edited down to a point that it’s hard to get a sense of the action unfolding. Key moments, such as a crash that put local rider Dave Zabriskie out of the race, are missed or ignored (despite the fact the show hasn’t been airing until a good four hours after the finish). And Bob Roll, the one on-camera guy I’d assume (since he has lived here) has a sense of the region. is reserved to his usual role of clown savant.

The best alternative, if you’ve got a high-speed Net connection: the live video/audiocast on the Tour of California’s own site. The video is choppy, but the audio commentary is vastly superior to what the Versus boys deliver,.

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