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Happy Birthday, Lion King

Nobody did it like Mario Cipollini. Today is his 40th birthday, and you can be sure he's enjoying it in style.

Can the Tour of California be both Boring and Successful?

Maybe a better question is, "Can the Tour of California be successful without being boring?"

This year's Amgen Tour of California had all the suspense, excitement, and drama of - well, of 8 days in a row of races. But with a wire-to-wire victory and any meaningful order in the race determined almost wholly over less than 20 miles of prologue and time trial, the event was decidedly unlike the grand tours it aspires to be.

The pre-race favorites were guys like Fabian Cancellara, Michael Rogers and David Zabriskie, simply because they're time trial specialists. These guys are all amazing racers. I'm a huge Zabriskie fan and know that he's one of the world's fastest men on a bike (when he can stay on it). But he's not an all-arounder. Granted, Levi Leipheimer is an all-arounder. But he won because of his time trialing. And his team, who were challenged, and rose to the occasion.

But they were only challenged by the other teams. In the Grand Tours, racers are challenged by the terrain and the result is a continuing narrative about the race's outcome. The major distinction between the Tour of California's climbs and those in the grand tours is not their length or pitch or category or quantity - but their location. The Tour of California had no mountaintop finishes, meaning that even stages with the area's most epic climbs were won by sprinters. J.J. Haedo conquers Trinity Grade and wins Stage 2 of the Amgen Tour of California!

The answer to every "why" question you can conjure up about American cycling is the same: "Because of the economics." No cities in California with big tourism budgets are on top of mountains. And stages have to begin and end in sizable towns to draw in enough spectators to satisfy event sponsors, and enable the race to receive the continued funding it needs to grow.

The only reason The Tour of California wasn't brutally insipid to American cycling fans (or at least the American mainstream media) this year is because an American won. Again. What happens next year if Paolo Bettini comes as a racer instead of a tourist, or Sergei Gonchar shows up at all?

A boring race with world class riders and deep-pocketed sponsors is a huge win for a race promoter, and a coup for any mayor whose city is a host. But another ingredient is essential if the race wants to achieve Grand Tour status, and not plateau as a training stage race, like the Dauphine Libere (no offense, Levi). If it's not a true battle for the racers, challenging legitimate GC contenders to come fit and race earnestly, the Tour of California - like its stages - will peak early and end predictably.

The Tour of California needs a Nickname

I can't remember the last time I saw a feature story in the mainstream press here in the U.S. on cycling, that wasn't somehow about an American in the Tour de France. Until this year's Tour of California, that is. Race reports, personal interest pieces, community perspectives and a handful of other story types are showing up everywhere, from the New York Times to the San Jose Merc and the Tahoe Daily Tribune, even Wired Magazine.

One of the best pieces I've seen so far is in today's USA Today. It digs into the business side of the Tour of California, and gives some background behind the man driving it - Philip Anschutz. He owns AEG, the sports management company that's producing and promoting the Tour of California. He's also financially involved in the LA Kings, LA Lakers, Staples Center, and the MLS, and is cited by the paper as being the guy responsible for bringing David Beckham to play soccer in the U.S.

Anschutz' objective with the Tour of California is for it to evolve into one of the Grand Tours, on par with the Tours of France, Italy and Spain.

Or rather, on par with the Tour, Giro, and Vuelta.

Now I'm not saying the Tour of California needs a distinct single word moniker to continue its growth, but its current naming convention is designed to pay homage to the Grande Boucle, making it difficult for the Tour of California to demonstrate how it is uniquely qualified to be one of the world's most prestigious cycling events. Here's an analogy: If you start a new job, and you call your boss - the Vice President of the department - "Mr Smithers", you're setting a precedent that's difficult to break. If your ultimate objective is to be promoted to Manager, then Director, then VP as Smithers' peer, plan for that ascension now and call your boss simply "Adlai."

The Tour of California faces the same conundrum. Assuming it rises through the ranks, how will we refer to the 4 Grand Tours in future? As the Tour, Giro, Vuelta and The Tour of California? Not going to happen, just like Smithers is not going to promote to VP some lackey who calls him "Mr", instead of addressing him by name and showing that in his mind, he's already a peer.

20/20 hindsight, I know. Where was this line of thinking last year, before the race painted itself into a corner with the "Tour" label? Changing at this point is marketing suicide, even if a synonym for "Tour" existed and carried the perfect connotation for this event. Something that nods to California's unique properties, and alludes to the history of the event and the location, somehow.

But American cycling differs from European in that it's grounded in economics, not history and tradition. So maybe the best way to ensure the Tour of California's escalation into the Grand Tour ranks is to henceforth refer to it simply as "The Amgen."

Sponsor Shenanigans

There are a couple of different stories circulating ostensibly about different topics, but ultimately about the same thing - namely, that the business of pro cycling is still fairly primitive, and that pro teams seem to put as much effort into clawing out an existence year after year as they do into actually developing their riders and winning races.

The heart of the issue is that sponsors have almost no way of gauging the impact of their sponsorship of cycling teams or events. Never mind that they also lack clarity into the ROI of the rest of their marketing budget - cycling has to be above ROI reproach to hang onto the funding it's got. There's plenty of evidence in today's news alone that we've got a long way to go:

  1. Welcome The Murphy & Gunn / Newlyn Group / M. Donnelly / Sean Kelly Cycling Team to the pro peloton. That's not its dog-show name, like a champion breeder would use when registering one of its animals for the Westminster Kennel Club show, signing him up as "Rufhauser's Champion Fiddle Faddle Spring-Stepper" when everyone knows the cute little guy simply as "Rufus." No, that's the team's name. In their defense, they've come up with the catchy nickname "M&G/NG/M/SK Cycling Team." Rolls as smooth as ceramic bearings, don't it? The Daily Peloton reports the full story, without blinking once at the team name. I understand the sponsors want some recognition, but this name is not and can not be a brand. It's a committe-formed disaster. I wish the team well, truly, and I applaud the folks at Murphy & Gunn and the generous gentleman at the Newlyn Group, as well as gracious M. Donnelly for their support. But fellas, come on. If you want to be talked about, come up with something Phil Liggett will actually say.
  2. TIAA-CREF becomes "Team Slipstream (powered by Chipotle)." They're racing in the Amgen Tour of California next week and already their name has been truncated to omit the key sponsor. They're simply "Team Slipstream." I'm sure the terms of the agreement would have allowed for the team to be named "Team Chipotle" or whatever with a sizable enough investment, and if that's the case I don't fault Slipstream for their integrity. But through this arrangement, where the sponsor pays a signficant amount to get a logo on the jersey, but not quite enough for their name to show up every time a rider's name is listed in placings, both team and sponsor have essentially colluded to ensure that Chipotle won't recognize a signficant value to its sponsorship, and Slipstream will spend all of this year's off season chasing down a new almost-title sponsor. My advice: don't offer this "powered by" or "presented by" option at all. Getting almost no ROI to a $500K commitment is far worse than a recognizable (if unmeasurable) return on $1MM.
  3. Team Unibet.com can't wear their main sponsor's name on their jerseys when racing in France. I don't know whether to classify this as piss-poor planning or brilliant guerilla marketing, but when a team actually gets better press for its sponsors by NOT showing their logo, something is greviously amiss.

Now That's Amore

While here in the U.S. we're waiting for the release of films on the lives of Graeme Obree and Lance Armstrong, fans in Italy were treated last night to the made-for-tv film on the life of the Pirate, Marco Pantani. CyclingNews.com has a short blurb on it, including interviews with Pantani's parents, and the film's lead actor and director. But what was most striking to me about the story is this little snippet tacked to the end:

"According to La Gazzetta dello Sport the film was watched by 5,571,000 spectators, or approximately 20.97% audience shares."

A 21% share?! For a made-for-TV movie about a cyclist? That puts it on par with 24 and Heroes, the two most popular TV shows running now. And it's a close runner-up to "Elvis: The Movie," the highest rated made-for-TV movie of all time in the U.S., which ran on ABC during Sweeps Week to a 27% share. But there were only two other channels on in 1979.

So I may have to amend my rules for becoming an admired and beloved cyclist:

1. Win Races
2. Look Good
3. Move to Italy

"The bike is like a beautiful woman, to be appreciated every day."

It sounds even better in Italian, when Paolo Bettini says it, in the new promo video on this new mini site by Specialized, who scored a major coup whe the Quick Step team signed on to ride their bikes this year.

You ever hear someone describe what it feels like to be in love, to have found a partner? Invariably the definition is nebulous and imprecise, but if you've actually felt it you can understand with perfect clarity. If you can't see into a lover's definition of love, you haven't been there yourself yet. For me, my fiancee's definition hit closest to home when she said she believed that a partnership is "a home for the soul, and a place for dialogue."

So Paolo says, "The bike is like a beautiful woman, to be appreciated every day," and you either get it or you don't. And if you do, it's because you know what it's like to have a partner in your bike - one you can count on, that (I'll stop short of saying 'who') inspires you, that enables you to be more of the You you want to be. Because I believe a bike should do that - it should make you feel lucky every day to have found it.

If you don't get it, you don't have the right bike.

Floyd's new bike (or, How to Build a Remarkable Ride)

It's rare when a highly-visible pro actually gets some say in their own equipment (in any sport, for that matter). Floyd Landis now has that opportunity, on account of he doesn't have a team. Say what you want about Floyd - believe him or no - but the guy's got a strong personality, style and a sense of humor. You see all of it in his new bike, which was just featured in one of Bicycling Magazine's blogs.

The bike was a gift from Saris (PowerTap), for Floyd to ride at his Training with Power camp. It's a Pegoretti built out of Scandium, with SRAM Force, Wheelbuilder.com wheels with the PowerTap SL hub, and I think a Salsa stem, which pays a little homage to Floyd's MTB roots.

The most remarkable feature of the bike though is printed all over the frame. Floyd's evidently a big "Deep Thoughts" by Jack Handey fan, and the frame is practically wallpapered with his quotations, including:

- "Smith and Wesson: The original point and click interface"
- "If man evolved from monkeys and apes, why do we still have monkeys and apes?"
- "If love is blind, why is lingerie so popular?"
- "Where do forest rangers go to get away from it all?"
-  "There's no future in time travel"

Funny, and remarkable in that the bike becomes a microcosm of Floyd's personality. I just rebuilt a bike myself - a 1993 handbuilt steel frame I used to race. The bike had tons of character but at 22.5 lbs wasn't very competitive. I got it down to about 18 lbs and like it so much it'll be my main race bike this year.

One of the reasons I wanted to rebuild it was to have a remarkable bike to race. A bike is a very personal choice, but the last team I was on had me ride a fairly unremarkable big-name, seen-in-every-shop, 2-dozen-in-every-pack frame, with Dura-Ace and Ksyrium SLs, etc. The bike positively dripped with technology, but lacked character. And ultimately I realized, I'm just not good enough a racer to have to ride someone else's bike choice. It's one advantage to being mediocre - people may notice what I DO ride, but no one will take note of what I DON'T ride.

So when rebuilding my bike I thought about what makes a bike remarkable, and aimed for it. I think in short, it's a commitment to deliberate choices, instead of shoulder-shrugging acceptance of what's readily available or safe. For me, that meant SRAM Force gruppo and cranks (compact), a Ritchey WCS Bar, Stem and Headset (a nod to my MTB background as well, as well as my bike's roots - it's a Brodie Rodie, made by a company in Vancouver BC that's almost exclusively mountain bikes), handbuilt wheels around black Mavic Open Pro rims, and an old-school looking Selle Italia seat.

And I found out there are ways to make a bike remarkable through details that don't require a $1500 overhaul, like these customized frame stickers, or even doing a short run of your own customized watter bottles (if you spend $60 each for a pair of carbon bottle cages, you can pony up $100 for 15 race day watter bottles with your name - or anything else - on them).

Gorgeous, is that you?

Yesterday someone in Durham, NC came to brilf.net through a Google search on "Hincapie". George, was this you doing a vanity search? If it was, say hey next time you're here. And if you ever want to swap me a BRILF t-shirt for one of these beautiful wool numbers of yours, just say so.

Tear 'em up this spring, George.

Google knows who is in fans' hearts

I bought some keywords on Google to drive traffic to brilf.net. In fact, I bought the name of every single cyclist in last year's Tour de France, as well as the team names, and the names of some of history's cycling greats. In most cases, mine is one of the first few listings (I guess not a lot of people want to advertise against "Alejandro Valverde" right now - go figure), so through my reports I can see how many times my ad appears, which also tells me how many times somebody is searching for that term.

I should point out that the results are only for the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. I don't know how to translate 'BRILF' into any of the languages that really matter in cycling.

Anyhoo, here's some interesting findings:

"Lance Armstrong" is still searched on more than twice as often as "Floyd Landis."
In fact, "Lance Armstrong" is searched on more than twice as often as "Tour de France."

"Ivan Basso" is outpulling "George Hincapie" by a factor of 2. Never underestimate Johan Bruyneel.
Except in comparison to "Johan Museeuw", whose news ensured he would be having a big Google day today.

Cyclists seem to be looking forward more to the release of "The Flying Scotsman" than the kickoff of the "Tour of California." This may be because the race is better promoted, and the release date of the movie is still buried in the rumor mill (I'm hearing April).

"Tom Boonen" has more Googlejuice today than "Eric Zabel", "Alejandro Petacchi", "Robbie McEwen," "Thor Hushovd" and "Oscar Friere" combined.

"Tour of Missouri" is almost as popular as "Paris Roubaix." I don't know what that says but I expect the folks in Missouri will be pleased.

"Marco Pantani" is more popular dead than "Gilberto Simoni" is alive.

"Eddy Merckx" has four times the juice of son "Axel."

The team competition shakes out like this:
1. Discovery Channel Cycling
2. Team CSC
3. T-Mobile Cycling
4. Tinkoff Cycling
5. Quick Step Cycling

And finally, nobody, Not One Person, is searching on "Iban Mayo."