Monday, August 18, 2014

An invisible city, at once joyful and somber

Photo: L. Baldelli

The small cell is made of raw, poured concrete, with one small opening on its door, which faces an outdoor courtyard. On one of the cell’s walls, in brightly colored capital letters that would be more at home in an elementary school’s classroom bulletin board, are the words “Holy Spirit.” The child-like playfulness of the letters stands in stark contrast to its surroundings, in part because of the man that inhabits the cell. Popeye (real name Jhon Jairo Velásquez) was Pablo Escobar’s closest adviser and soldier. In Escobar’s name, during the 1980s and 90s, Popeye personally murdered at least 250 people, and ordered countless executions, including his involvement in the deaths of over 500 police officers. He kidnapped Bogota’s mayor Andres Pastrana (who would later be president), and countless other politicians, helping to completely destabilize the country. To that end, Popeye was also instrumental in the planning and execution of the attack on the Avianca 203 flight in 1989, where an entire airliner with 110 passengers was blown out of the sky with a bomb in an effort to kill a presidential candidate who, as it happened, was not even on board.  

Today, Popeye speaks to the press when called upon to do so, giving detailed accounts of his past exploits, perhaps in an attempt to remain relevant within a country that sees him as repulsive symbol of the past, one that many resent in part because it was men like Popeye who—through their actions—so drastically changed the daily lives of Colombians, along with their vocabulary, and self,  and in so doing shaped the way others viewed Colombians. Such was the power of Escobar and his men. Through their actions, they came to redefine an entire nation.

Popeye speaks with Andres Pastrana (former Colombian president) about how he planned and executed his kidnapping, as well as several other assassinations and crimes related to those events. He calmly gives astonishing detail about who was involved in what bombings and killings, how trucks were retrofitted to house large volumes of explosives, and what government and military entities were involved in kidnappings, and which ones offered him help in these actions. (in Spanish)

Today, Popeye's life is far simpler, though reminders of who he was remain visible. The man who was once an avid cyclist, and trained in the mountains of Antioquia before entering a life of crime, has two guards solely dedicated to him at all times in prison, and he's largely kept away from its general population. When he's allowed to spend time in the prison's yard, Popeye can see the surrounding landscape and its undulating mountains. Part of that view is a nearby road, which countless cyclists use to make their way toward their preferred mountainous training routes, just as Popeye did as a cyclist during his youth in Antioquia.

Like Popeye, one of the cyclists who often rides on that raod is a symbol to many in Colombia. Albeit at the opposite end of the spectrum. He's Nairo Quintana, and like Popeye, he also calls the town of Cómbita, Boyaca, home.


Cómbita, is a place that is often conjured up by the international press when speaking of Quintana’s background and upbringing. The town wasn’t founded, as much as it was simply found. Spanish clergy came upon natives who had called the area home for countless generations in 1586. They took up residence, though the town was not incorporated until 1938. With a current population of only 13,000, the inmates in Cómbita's high security prison make up 15% of the town's population. But it's because of Nairo Quintana (and his brother Dayer) that people outside of Colombia know of this town, whose name comes from the local native language meaning “strength of the summit”. Fitting, considering the reason why there’s now an ongoing stream of journalists visiting a small town that few even realized existed just a couple of years back. Some European and American journalists have made the pilgrimage as well, thinking of Cómbita exclusively within the context of cycling, not realizing the very different reason why Colombians have long known the town’s name, and what they identify it with: its prison, the men that are held within, and the manner in which they shaped part of the Colombian narrative. 

Cómbita welcomes Quintana back after the 2014 Giro

But much in the same way that Cómbita can’t be defined by the Quintana family, it also can’t be defined by its iconic prison. The reality is that in towns like this, life has not changed significantly through the years, and will continue to be much as it is regardless of how it's viewed by anyone. Nearly all of the town’s inhabitants are farmers, with many bringing their products to market to the town square on weekends. Quintana’s parents, who themselves were once potato farmers, still live nearby above the small shop (think of it as a convenience store for rural Colombia, a “tienda” in the local parlance) that they’ve owned an operated for many years.

Combita's main square, which you can see yourself through the magic of Google Streetview here.

The best and most beautiful town
The juxtaposition between the raw concrete prison, and the tranquil Colombian countryside has not been lost on the locals or their representatives. In 2011, as 327 of the most violent and feared criminals in Colombia were set to be transferred the prison, people in the town began to make signs which they hung over streets and on the sides of their homes in protest. “Please don’t bring the worst men, to the best and most beautiful town”. The governor, with a lighthearted tone that is indicative of the local population proclaimed, “Around here, we only care about and know about musical groups, not armed groups”. He said this in reference to the rich musical heritage of the area, which has produced its own musical style and countless musical groups that are beloved throughout the country.

A perfect example of the local musical style, all in a song about competitive cycling, and the narrator's will to get a bike (a "little iron horsey") so he can train and win races

Despite these pleas, the inmates were transferred. For Boyaca’s locals, having these criminals nearby, even if it is under lock and key, is greatly at odds with the life and reality they know. This is in part because Boyacá, unlike other parts of Colombia, didn’t endure the kind of seemingly endless violence that plagued most of the country during the 80s and 90s. Additionally, much of Boyacá remains nearly untouched by change, keeping its simple agrarian culture almost intact. This only adds to the lore of Nairo Quintana, making him a cycling icon abroad, while at home he’s become a beloved (albeit folklorized) symbol of Colombian determination, and a reminder of a simpler, earlier time in the country’s history.

Photo: The Times

Today, the prison is known to be one of the most secure in the country, a far cry from the days of Pablo Escobar when—to the horror of an entire nation—the drug lord was allowed to build his own prison near Medellin, where Popeye himself was "incarcerated". While the prison in Cómbita is not perfect (inmates have trained native pigeons to bring them cell phones and sim cards, while guards have been charged with providing prisoners with contraband), it's a place that criminals fear. Their idea of Cómbita is very different from the one that exists in the prose of international journalists who write profiles about Quintana, and his place of birth. 

That these two opposite realities exist simultaneously in one physical place makes Cómbita like so many other towns and cities that have opposite ends of one spectrum co-existing at once. But the small size of the town, as well as the outlandish extremes at both ends, and what they signify to,an entire country, make Cómbita an interesting paradox.

Combita Prison

Anywhere but Cómbita
You only have three destinations to pick from when flying out of the Alfonso López Pumarejo airport in the northern Colombian city of Valledupar. That’s how small the airport is. This only made the events that transpired there two weeks ago that much more bizarre. On August 5th, men from the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) paramilitary group stood by the airport’s security fences, and began to fire upon a small airplane on the tarmac. Their their leader, Javier Urango Herrera (alias “Chely”) was set to board that plane, as he was being transferred from a local prison to Cómbita. Men from Colombia’s national penitentiary forces, who were transporting Urango, returned fire. During the shootout, the paramilitary leader tried to run across the runway toward freedom, but was shot and killed. Local and national newspapers referred to the events of the day as “far-fetched”, and “fit for a movie”. And such was Urango’s drive to avoid being sent to Cómbita. He had, after all, already escaped a local prison in 2008, only to be apprehended in Venezuela and later extradited, in order to serve a sixty-year sentence for homicide, torture, terrorist acts, and kidnapping. Nearly all of it, would have been served in Cómbita’s high security prison, a fate that Urango and his men feared to the point of attempting what was clearly an ill-conceived and foolish plan.

Javier Urango Herrera in custody as he was extradited from Veneuzela

The 1972 book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is framed as a conversation between an aging Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, in which the explorer describes Khan’s expanding empire, focusing on 55 separate cities which he describes in great detail. Confronted with the book, the reader quickly realizes that Polo is not speaking of actual, physical cities, but rather what they mean to those who live there, and the feelings they can bring out in us. As the explorer himself states in the book, “You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders but in the answer it gives to a question of yours."

To that end, Polo describes these cities, all of them inhabited by people who author Eric Weiner has described as “a tortured lot, ensnared in various traps, largely of their own making.” Many of these cities have an exaggerated duality about them that is not unlike that of Cómbita. One city, for example, has an exact replica of itself—made in pure gold—buried underneath. Its citizens, however, are unaware of this, and live simple, poor and miserable existences. Another city is described as being filled with pain and sadness, and yet, its citizens are unaware of this reality, unexpectedly leading to “a happy city unaware of its existence”, a heartbreaking description of a population that is unaware of both its sadness and good fortune.

Quintana's faimly in Combita's town square (Photo: El Tiempo)

In a sense, the dualities described in Invisible Cities very much fall in line with the pluralities of our time. And while such dualities are by no means exclusive to Cómbita, it’s interesting to see how they so closely mirror those of Colombia as a whole, without necessarily creating an overarching metanarrative. Colombia is at once joyful and somber. Hopeful for the future and what it represents, while being collectively ashamed of its past and how it’s helped shape the view many have of a country.

In that sense, sport, and cycling in particular, will continue to shape the nation’s identity, if only as a counterpoint to that which so many see as a fundamental part of its tumultuous history. And perhaps in the end, it's that contradiction that makes Colombia completely and utterly....Colombian.

A Nairo fan rides his bike near Combita. Note the home-painted tshirt


1. I will be going to Colombia, and will thus be away from the blog. I expect to be back the first week of September.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A thoroughly thorough interview with United Healthcare's "world class nap-taker" Kiel Reijnen

For the bulk of today's post, you'll need to head over here, to read a very, very thorough interview that I did with Kiel Reijnen for/with Manual For Speed. In said interview, the following topics (among many others) are discussed:

- How his Shimano Sport Camera captured a certain European rider during a stage at the Tour of California talking about how he'd cheated on his wife with a "smoking hot blond". See, on-bike cameras really do give fans more access.

- Why there are wild chickens that run free during races in the Pacific Northwest

- Why he brings dehydrated beef stroganoff to races

Lastly, three notes about the Tour of Utah:

- Did you see Winner Anacona climb? The guy is an amazing talent, and I'll be doing an interview with him soon. And no, his last name is not "Anaconda"

- Bigish stage races in the US that happen during relative lulls in European racing are proof that if you put some climbs in a race, and then provide me with a free, non pixelated feed that I can enjoy online, I'll watch almost anything, and probably like it more than I normally would due to its availability. And if it's in the afternoon, instead of the morning (my time), all the better. I know it takes a huge amount of money to make that kind of availability happen, but to think that the Vuelta a Colombia is happening right now, and no one can see it breaks my heart.

- Chris Horner failed to take time out of Tom Danielson, but his real goals for the end of the season clearly lay elsewhere. But if those goals don't go so well either, will he have to reactivate his "Rentmoolah" eBay account to make ends meet?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Disappearing by going home

Nairo Quintana on a training ride this past weekend in Boyaca (Photo: El Tiempo)

The sport and its fans have more theories about wrongdoing than an Oliver Stone movie, and rightfully so. Always looking ahead, in order to guess who might be doing what and how, theories flow effortlessly. At European races, I've heard many such theories, often from people who know just enough about the sport to make you think about their theories for a second or two. Due to my nationality, the one that often gets brought up is that of Colombian riders "disappearing" to their home towns during the season, to do god-knows-what once they are "hidding" there. This has been brought up to me enough times, that I made note of last year, and it would appear as though Matt Rendell has heard this also.

To be honest, I couldn't really figure out why these comments and questions about riders going home bothered me so much, until I saw Matt's comment (above). Because while I see the point that fans are trying to make, I fail to see Colombia as a far away place that you "disappear to". But understanding that point of view helps further explain the notion of Colombian riders coming "out of nowhere". In either scenario, Colombia is a place that you either disappear to, or the mythical land on nowhere.

While I don't necessarily take issue with the accusations or questions posed, I instead take interest in the huge cultural chasm they reveal, and the fact that its significance is not unlike that of the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. But bringing up that story, of course, can lead one down the path of believing that we might all be blind. And I'm open to that, though I honestly believe that I'm not blinded by patriotic hubris, and am well aware of what is going on in Colombia. So at the risk of repeating myself here, it's the difference of how we each see a single place that interests me. Home and family, or a dark hiding place, that is nowhere. When it comes to countries like Colombia, this difference of opinion is simply part of our ongoing narrative, and (for better or worse) helps shape how we are viewed by others, and how we sometimes view ourselves.

GoPro video of Nairo Quintana on a training ride this past weekend


Carlos Betancur (Photo: Cycling Inquisition)

Having heard that Carlos Betancur was going to leave Ag2r, I tried in vain to speak to him last week. Interestingly, several riders who know and train with him told me they didn't have his phone number. "Oh god no, I don't have his number, no one does. He doesn't give it to anyone."

I suddenly remembered talking to Betancur several times at the Giro last year, as well as earlier at Amstel Gold, and never really getting him to agree to do an interview.

Interested in building up the myth of Quintana as a human riddle, the press has largely missed a guy who does in fact have some of those qualities (for whatever reason, and to which he has every right to).

And yes, at is turns out, he is in fact looking for a new team.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sergio Henao, testing in Colombia, and cultural assimilation. Part two of my interview with Fran Millar.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

In part two if my interview with Sky's Fran Millar, we discuss the reasons behind Sergio Henao being taken out of competition, and the steps taken by the team to understand the blood values that were originally in question. We also talk about Colombians in Sky, the team's original policy of having riders speak English, and the realities of bio passport testing in Colombia.

Today, part of the discourse within cycling is driven by the numerous questions that fans rightfully ask. So when Sky took Sergio Henao out of competition due to blood values, it likely served as confirmation to some that something was in fact going on in the team. 
But he returned to racing. See, we discovered something in his values that we didn’t understand. Something that the authorities couldn’t help us understand. We were able to validate what we’d seen. We had hematological experts look at it, and carry out that study and say, “this is a normal physiological reaction, he’s safe to return to competition.” 

I think, for me, that was a real success story. Of course, it was so hard for him, particularly the situation he finds himself in now [Sergio came back to competition, only to crash during a TT recon, and will likely be out for the rest of the season]. 

But ultimately, it was a success for the anti-doping movement, because the biological passport raises valid questions, but is not absolutely infallible. It also proved that teams are pro-active, they can protect the athletes that are clean, to prove that the performances people see are credible.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Cycling fans often pretend to be hematologists when discussing blood values. I want to avoid doing that, but I was wondering... the issue with Henao, was it a matter of his blood values and how they looked on paper based on the fact that he lives and trains at altitude in Colombia?
Yeah. The short explanation of it is that for the first time ever, our altitude-native athletes were tested at altitude when returning to that altitude, and after having been there for three months. We’d never had that before, so we had never seen those kinds of results before. It may well be that if Sergio had been tested before when he was home, we would have seen those results, but that was not the case [before this year, almost no out of competition testing was ever done in Colombia to athletes that are part of the biological passport program. Testing has now increased. Miguel Angel Rubiano told me that he was tested at home several times in a two month period in early summer].

The parameters that the UCI set up in the biological passport were set up for western athletes who do not live at attitude, and have no chronic exposure to altitude. So we felt that what we were seeing put his points outside the usual parameters. So we took that result to the UCI and to CADF (Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation), and then to a hematologist, and we asked, is this normal? Do you have any advice? What should we do? We didn’t get any real support, so we took a pro-active approach, we were open about it, and admitted that we didn’t know what the values meant. We didn’t want to take the risk of this athlete having an anomalous finding in the future, but also we wanted to find out what it meant. 

We like working with our young Colombian riders. They have huge talent, there’s amazing talent coming out of Colombia, and we want to know what this is, so we can protect our riders down the line as well. So we sent him back, and worked with a great hematologist who did loads of research and spoke to a lot of experts about altitude natives, and experts about blood values in mountaineering. The work that they did with Sergio will hopefully be published as a scientific paper in the next year, because the information they found was pretty ground breaking. It sheds new light on this topic, but also gave us complete confidence in the fact that he’s a clean athlete, and that what we were seeing in him was normal.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

I’m sometimes protective of Colombian riders, but I can also see why some fans take issue with how some of them structure their season. By this I mean that Colombian professionals will often go back home to train when they can, much as others do. But due to location, someone called this “disappearing to Colombia”, to which Matt Rendell rightfully pointed out that when you are Colombian, you don’t “disappear”, you “go home”. Still, the gaps in out of competition testing outside of Western Europeand perhaps the US—have been troubling, but seem to be getting sorted out now. I think this is partly because driving to suburban Brussels through nice wide avenues to test someone, is very different from the realities of driving to a tiny town on the edge of an Andean peak.
I think that’s the case. There were gaps there due to genuine logistical issues. I could be wrong about this, but I think there was urine testing, but blood testing was the issue since it requires such strict parameters. So the time between taking a sample and delivery to the lab, along with temperature samples have to kept at, are complicated when you are talking about athletes who live up a mountain in Colombia, and trying to get those blood samples back to a lab in the right temperature, and in the right time frame. It’s logistically very difficult, and they now have that figured out, so they are doing it, and this is great for Colombian cycling, for the anti-doping movement, and for the sport.

Team Sky rules, as originally posted in the team's bus

Culturally speaking, Sky is primarily intended to be a British team, though you have riders from many countries. Originally, the team insisted that riders speak English when in a group, so there was an attempt to have some level of cultural assimilation. How has this worked in practice?
It’s challenging, I’m not going to lie. Originally, we were really resolute in English being the only spoken language. But as you go along, you learn. So asking a24-year-old Colombian riders to speak English in an English team, when they don’t speak English is simply not fair. So when Rigoberto, Sergio and Sebastian came on, we began to employ more Spanish-speaking staff. So we decided that it was only fair. The way we train our athletes is very communication-intensive, so expecting a young athlete to get up to speed with how the team does things, and then to communicate technical information in a foreign language is just unfair. So yes, we really want them to speak English, and we’ll work with them to do that, so they can get the best out of the team, but if that can be done in Spanish, we’re comfortable with that. The philosophy of the team is a coaching-led philosophy, not an English-speaking philosophy. So our philosophy is more culturally important than language or anything else.


Question: how would the city or town you live in welcome a rider who had just won the Giro Valle d'Aosta? This is how El Retiro, in Colombia, does it.

I'll probably be accused of being hypersenstive, or of not understanding how the intent and meaning of terminology changes with time and geographic location...but I have to be honest and tell you that hearing Phil Liggett use the term "Chinaman" during the last stage of the tour made me cringe, just as him calling Kevin Reza "colored" last year did. Again, I'm aware of the relative differences afforded by location and time when it comes to such things...but boy oh boy.

For that matter, I'm aware of the cultural meaning (more or less) of the Zwarte Piet tradition in Netherlands, but seeing Johan Vanummeren and Thomas Dekker in what (within the US) amounts to black face was really uncomfortable.

Did you miss out on the last order of Cycling Inquisition jerseys? Remember that you can still buy one here.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Tough lessons learned by Team Sky and the language of the innocent. An interview with Fran Millar.

Photo: Team Sky

Fran Millar's history within the sport is an interesting one. Known dismissively by some as "David's sister", Millar has been a central figure in British cycling for nearly fifteen years. During that time, she's worked as an event promoter, rider agent, and has held several positions at Sky, having been there since the team's inception. My initial goal was to talk about the realities that come with being a visible and accessible member of Team Sky, particularly within the current climate in the sport. In the end however, we ended up talking about many other things, like representing riders, the difficult lessons that Team Sky has learned, the validity of doubt among fans, and yes, her brother. 

One other note: this interview was conducted right before the news about Jonathan Tiernan-Locke were released, so that topic is not covered. Nevertheless, I think the subjects we did touch upon are, in a broader sense, more telling and interesting. At least to me. Thanks to Fran for her time.

At what point were you introduced to cycling, and how?
I was about fifteen years old, and it was through my brother. By that point, he was racing on a domestic team when he was home, so I would watch the Tour with him on TV when he was home from Hong Kong.

Wisden Almanack

Before entering the world of cycling, you worked for the Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack [a cricket reference book published annually in the UK, and often referred as “the Bible of cricket”] Did that that job entice you to pursue a career in sport?
After school, I had a temporary position in a really generic business, and I realized it wasn’t for me. I wanted to move to London, and I wanted to work in sports. The opportunity at Wisden came up, and I loved it. In part because of David, I had always loved sports anyway, and it’s certainly more exciting than a standard office job, isn’t it?

I was working at Wisden when David won the yellow jersey at the Tour, and my boss at the time had been business partners with Björn Borg’s manager. I mentioned that IMG wasn’t doing a very good job, and he didn’t have a very high of opinion of IMG, so he mentioned that maybe I should represent my brother. I had never thought about something like that as a job, but with him giving me the nudge, I thought perhaps I could do it.

So that was in 2000, your brother is considered a promising rider at a very high level, and you decide you want to represent him. Do you present this idea to your brother with a full business plan, in an attempt to be as professional as possible, or is it as simple as a conversation between siblings?
It was pretty informal. At the time, I was living with a guy who was a web designer, and we thought we could build a fan site for David. Today, people in the UK enjoy and understand cycling, but back then, people here didn’t really understand the sport, and there was only a small hardcore group of fans that we thought we could tap into through a site. You know, maybe we were a little ahead of our time, because we thought we could build a pay wall, and let people have all this access, all kinds of stupid stuff. 

But in the end, it wasn’t a really serious conversation, it was more of us just dicking around. David and I have always gotten along really well, so it was more about, “we can build this website for you, we can do some PR for you.” So it was more of a fun thing. Over the course of the next few years, the guy who I built that site with for David did write up a business plan, which included getting other clients beyond David. I have that business plan somewhere, and I’ve read it back since, and it’s absolutely hilarious, particularly the kind of money we thought we would be making. In the end, none of it happened, because we ended up going more into event management than into athlete representation.

But you did end up managing other athletes, correct?
We did, simply because I had a real affinity to some of them, and I just loved the sport. But we never charged them any money. And in those days, it wasn’t a big money proposition anyway.

At the company’s peak, how many athletes did you manage, and were they all cyclists?
The company is still going today, and it’s one of the biggest cycling management companies in the UK, mostly doing events. But at its peak, around the Beijing Olympics, we had around 15 athletes. But we weren’t very good at it, and we openly admitted to that, but I was personally very attached to some of the riders.

Photo: Team Sky

Like who?
Mark Cavendish. I worked with him from before he turned professional, to right before he left Team Sky. Now, looking back on it, I think we were in the wrong sport to do athlete representation in, but the right one to do event promotion and building a brand in. Plus, representing cyclists back then was not a moneymaking business. Now it is, but I also see just how much it takes to do that now. The contacts, the experience, and the willingness to sell your soul too. We didn’t have any of those things.

If I have the timeline correct, that means you were representing Mark Cavendish, and you were working with Sky at the same time. How was that conflict of interests dealt with?
Right. I was working for Sky, and I had to declare that I had an interest in Mark, and that even though I was no longer directly representing him, he still asked for my advice on these matters. I had never taken money from Mark, I never got a percentage of his contracts, ever, but I did do his first book deal and got a percentage of that. So it was technically representation, but it was more like I was a big sister to him in that sense. 

So when he was coming to Sky, I asked him how he’d like it to be handled. Did he want me to be involved in negotiations? I also spoke to the team’s board, and it was determined that if Mark and Dave Brailsford was comfortable with it, I could be involved since I knew the team and Mark. So I was involved in the conversations, but it was completely open that I had an interest in both sides.

Fran Millar, Martin Ayers, Dan Buillemette, and Tim Kerrison (Photo: Scott Mitchell/Team Sky)

Cavendish aside, I was wondering, did you charge your brother a fee, or was there some financial arrangement to get your business going?
No, we just took a percentage of sales from the website, which probably added up to 100 Pounds (laughs). But no, I don’t remember him every giving me money. The thing that actually got the company off the ground was an event called the Good Friday Meeting. We asked David if he would ride it, he agreed, but mentioned that maybe we should ask about promoting it, doing PR for it, and getting paid for that. So that was a great opportunity, and we would ask David to ride these events. We never paid him a fee, so I guess it was an exchange of favors really. But he demands a fee now (laughs)!

That speaks to how close you and your brother are. Which brings up a question: did you know about your brother’s doping as it was happening? Did you suspect it?
I suspected it, yeah. There was never a direct conversation that we ever sat down and had, but I think it was definitely…I knew what the sport was like, and I suppose I turned a blind eye.

David Millar speaks to the press at the 2007 Tour after Vinokourov tested positive for a blood transfusion

You’ve had several jobs within Sky since the team’s inception, but many still think of you as being the press officer, which you are not.
I project managed the setup of the team through 2008 and 2009 and then once we were racing there was a natural lead towards the marketing side for me—in part because I don’t have a performance background; I know nothing about training or equipment. 

Then when Brian Nygaard, out head of communications, left Sky [Nygaard went to Leopard-Trek, and subsequently Orica-GreenEDGE] I was asked to take on that role for the 2010 Tour de France, which I did. And it was fucking awful (laughs)! Because of that, many think that I’m the communications person for Team Sky, which I’m not. So people will call me out on Twitter, and tell me I should be doing my job for the team in communications, and I have to tell them, “I’m not the fucking press officer!” (laughs)

I think I know why it was a nightmare, but I might be wrong. Can you tell me why?
To be honest, it was a nightmare because we did this massive hoo-ha, about how we were going to win the Tour de France, how we were going to be amazing and we had this great, big shiny bus, we had all this money, and we were the new kids on the block. And we tanked. There’s no other way to put it. We tanked. Bradley had come in fourth with Garmin, and there had been this massive transfer negotiation and press about him leaving Garmin and coming to Sky. So Bradley comes to us, and we tank. 

And at that point, everyone smells blood.
Right, everyone was on us like a rash. And rightly so, because at the end of that season we all sat down and realized we had learned quite a few lessons about our approach and we had to do a wholesale review of our organization, to look at our mistakes, what we could improve on. The result was that much of how the team operates now comes from that review after 2010. So it wasn’t the work before 2010, but it was the failure that helped us put things in place to make us better.

And your job title now at Sky is…
Head of Winning Behaviors.

What does that mean?
Basically, when we first started the team, we had a really clear vision of what we wanted to achieve. Win the Tour de France with a clean British riders within five years, and to inspire a million people within the UK to ride more regularly. And we used that vision as a rallying cry, a north star to guide us, which made making decisions and communicating within the team much easier. At the end of 2012, we met as a team to realign the goals, and to look forward toward the next year, realizing that we’d achieved two of the goals we’d set out to achieve, winning the Tour and inspiring a million people to ride bikes.  

So we got everyone together in London to discuss the end of the year, and that’s when the USADA decision about Lance came out. So rather than talking about goals for the next year, we began to talk about the importance of reaffirming our anti-doping position. That meant re-interviewing people about their past, and having people leave the team as a result, and all the chaos that came from that. That meant that we went through the following season without really resetting anyone, or having really talked about who we are, and what we stand for. We felt that there had been a bit of a cultural drift, and it became clear that what had gotten us to that point was not going to keep us there. We needed to keep moving forward, and pushing on. So we decided that we needed a way to let our riders know what being in Team Sky means, what being a part of the team means, what’s expected of them, how they can get better. These are all things that you would do in a corporation, but doing it within the context of a sports team. So we call it “winning behaviors” since it’s about sustaining the behaviors that can keep us winning. So I’ve been building that program over the course of the last 6 to 8 months as the head of it.

Fran and her brother David in 2009

Even though you are not the press officer for the team, as you mentioned, many think you are. Additionally, you are a public person because of who your brother is and your presence on social media. That means that you can be attacked and questioned in a very public and direct way. How do you deal with that, and did you ever imagine that this would be part of your job?
To be honest, it doesn’t really get to me. Having been with David with what he went through, and having seen what happened to him, I think it gives you a thick skin, and makes you realize that it’s not the end of the world. When everything was happening to David, I realized that some people had a point. They were angry that he had cheated, and lied. But I know that Team Sky riders are clean, I know that our lads are not doing anything wrong, so people can throw all the crazy in the world at me, and I don’t find it to be that bad. And if I can, I’ll corrected them, but you can’t try to correct every person on the internet, because you’ll go mad. But if people ask me legitimate questions, or if I feel that something hasn’t been communicated properly, and I can try to correct that in 140 characters, then I will. 

But when I get called out by the more…challenging people, whose mind you will never change, I tend to disengage because you can’t win. But that doesn’t upset me. In fact, I understand it. This sport has had a long history of lying and cheating and all sorts of negativity. So it’s unrealistic for anyone to expect that after the biggest icon of the sport was brought down, everything will suddenly be perfect, nice as pie and questions won’t be asked anymore. It’s just unrealistic.

I feel that doubt can be healthy, and that questions must be asked. But I wrote something about this before, the fact that despite its value, doubt can sometimes come from the very same place that blind belief did earlier. This is not to say that it's bad, but perhaps to point out that it can be just as blind, if it’s merely an inversion in logic.
There are a variety of things going on. You’ve got something like Twitter, which didn’t exist twenty years ago. Some people on Twitter think that they are agents of change, because they are asking questions. During the height of Change Cycling Now, there was a false sense that Twitter was governing the editorial decisions of major newspapers, which was insane. In the UK, only 27% of the population is on Twitter. And of those, only 3% tweet regularly. So we are talking a tiny majority who had an impact on editorial decisions of newspapers, which is an interesting evolution of news coverage and interaction. Had Twitter existed in the days of Lance, he too would have been bombarded with questions, but people didn’t have a way to do that.

But there are two things here. We as a team are dominant. We won the Tour de France twice, we were number one and then number two in the world, and we race in a dominant way. We say things like, “the days of attacking in the mountains are gone”, but then do it. To some people, it’s like, “the only time I saw this before was with Lance, and I believed that, so I won’t be fooled again.” So I totally get that, and if I was a fan, and not as close to Team Sky as I am, and didn’t know the riders, I don’t know.

When did you think about that in particular?
I remember watching the Dauphine in 2012, on the Col De Joux Plan, Richie and the guys just absolutely battered everyone. And I remember thinking, “whoa, if I didn’t know this team, I would be asking questions.” It’s understandable. The other thing I want to mention is this. I work a lot with the Head of Comms at Sky Sports and he said to me a few years ago—If you look at how Lance dealt with accusations, he stole the language of the innocent.

That’s interesting.
I think it's true. You cannot say anything today that Lance didn’t say. He’s used all the lines, and the language of the innocent. So what can we say. We train harder, we use the best equipment, and we eat better. He took it all. He used all the lines…not “lines”, he took the truth, and used it for his purpose.

And Sky has been mocked for us saying those lines.
Yes, people tease us on Twitter, saying that Sky is what it is because of "the pillows", or "the pineapple juice". It’s not the pillows or the pineapple juice. They are part of what we do, but it’s the work that our athletes do, day in day out, at camps and up on Mount Teide [in Tenerife], is unprecedented. That’s why other teams go there now, because it has a huge impact. So as a team, we have to go through a period of recognizing that anything we say, whether is where we train, sleep, pillows, training harder, we are going to sound like Lance. And we may look like Lance, but we have to know that we are not. So we can’t expect everyone to believe that, but time will prove us right. I really hope that some of those more vitriolic people on Twitter will recognize that. I doubt they will, but we can hope.

"The pillows", as featured on Bike Radar

If I could give you a magic wand, I don't know why I’d be trusted to be the keeper of this magic wand, but let’s pretend. With this wand, you could make one thing about cycling change. What would that be?
Wow, that’s a massive question. I would like to get to a point where our fans can trust the authorities are doing their utmost to manage and run a clean sport. And that our fans could compete at the top of their game, winning, and have absolute faith and knowledge that they are doing so clean. That’s not in place now because people don’t trust the system. I don’t generally think that people don’t trust Chris Froome, I think they don’t trust WADA, or the UCI. So if I could make fans feel like they know that the testing works, and that the system is working, it would be game changing for the whole sport, and things would fall into place. It would be more commercially viable for sponsors, it would have a huge impact across the board.

I mean, I would love the change the financial stability of teams, and their reliance on sponsors, but ultimately, that would come with having a sport that people can trust. ■

In part two of this interview (which will be posted on Thursday), I speak with Fran about Colombian riders within Team Sky, cultural assimilation, Sergio Henao being removed from competition, and biological passport testing in South America. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pantani, Uran Uran and Serpa

Pantani is often portrayed as either a saint or a demon. My take on him is (I think) different. I was asked to write about this, which you can read here.

Speaking of Pantani, sorry to repeat myself by posting the photo above again...but I still can't get over the similarity.

Did you miss out on the last order of black Cycling Inquisition jerseys? Remember that you can still buy one here.

Yup, you want one, and you can order one here.

By the time this post goes up, this might be old news, but I couldn't pass it up since Serpa was included (via Ciclismo Espresso)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Moving a couch while you're naked, and riding your bike in circles. My latest visit to London.

In my post two weeks ago, I let you (the Cycling Inquisition reader), into my world, that of a fourth rate blogger who goes to races and hops fences to avoid having to enjoy the festivities with the hoi polloi. Today, I find myself back in the United States, and memories of seeing the Tour and hopping fences are but faint memories. Luckily, I was able to ride my bike and do other things during my trip, and while I'm far too lazy to write appropriate prose on the matter, I'm able to write a few almost-cohesive bullet points, so allow me to do so. In no particular order, here are a few observations of my stay in the UK, not unlike those I made some years ago when I was (pleasantly) trapped in London due to an Icelandic volcano overlord.

- London, I love you, you're great and all that, and I realize you being the way you are is what makes you great. But lord almighty, having a slight grid system to your streets would be really helpful when I ride my bike. Similarly, cycling announcers on TV talk about "road furniture" in the context of continental Europe, but I wonder if they're aware of the fact that London is more or less the aftermath of eight thousand Ikea delivery trucks dumping their contents on the roads for several decades. It's Billy bookcases and Malm beds for miles.

- Also London, why do things like this (image blow) exist in your streets? I'm certain that one of your citizens will tell me, but for the life of me, I fail to see why you are the only city in the world with pygmy streets that go nowhere.

- These gripes aside, London is very entertaining. Its citizens certainly are. Consider this man, who I saw three days in a row while riding my bike, always in the same spot, always doing more or less the same thing (semi-nude, urban Tai Chi I think), with only slight variations.

- If it's nudity you want to see while in the UK, I highly recommend going to the Rapha Cycle Club near Picadilly Circus. While the quantity and quality of the nudity afforded to visitors is not on par with that of the Standard Hotel in New York City, it's certainly memorable. Consider this guy in a building across the street, who I noticed while watching a bit of the Tour there. While I can't say for sure that he was having a bit of sexy time, it certainly looked that way. Either that, or he was naked and trying to move a couch that simply wouldn't budge for an epic amount of time.

If you can't see him, let me use the "enhance" feature in my computer to give you a closer look. Here he is.

But let me get back to addressing the city of London directly.

- London, towel warmers in your hotels make clean towels smell like naan from an Indian restaurant. I love you for this reason.

- London, you have solutions for problems I didn't even know existed.

- London, you have memorials on the trees where people who I forgot even existed died.

- London, where I live I've heard that people will scoff if you suggest an out-and-back cycling route, since big loops are always preferred, and "flow" must be optimal. But for your citizens, going around in circles in a park is not only OK, it's considered part of daily life (due to necessity). I know that people who live in New York City and other places do this sometimes, but your citizens have really made this into an art form, which is oddly admirable.

- London, I would never say that your citizens drive on the "wrong" side of the street. I'm not that dumb. I do, however, have trouble figuring out what side of the sidewalk, hallway, train platform, staircase or escalator I should be in. After several visits, I still assume that it should be the left (in keeping with driving convention), but it turns out that I'm always wrong, since the correct way to traverse changes faster than Cavendish leaves the Tour. London, please make up your mind.


If you want to impress your friends with knowledge about up and coming riders, and enjoy telling people that you knew about so-and-so years before they found out about them, pay attention to 4-72—Colombia. The team just won the overall at the Giro Valle d´Aosta in Italy with Bernardo Suaza, after having held the race lead with Diego Ochoa earlier. Keep an eye on Suaza, as a few European teams are likely doing so already. Remember that this is the team where Nairo Quintana, Sergio Henao, Jarlinson Pantano  and Darwin Atapuma came up. Their batting average is ridiculous.

Sometimes I think I folklorize the fact that some Colombian cyclists have (or continue to) drink agaupanela and eat bocadillo during their rides. It's certainly true that the importance of these things was greatly overblown by the Colombian media in the 1980s, but the fact remains that nutrition bars and drinks remain pricy there, and many enjoy these flavors, which we Colombians have known since our youth. But take the image below as an example, and as proof that I'm not making this up. It was tweeted out by Victor Hugo Peña, with the following caption:

"Time for some Agapanela-torade and some native Colombian Powergel: bocadillo."