Thursday, July 5, 2012

2012 Tour de France: Stages Four and Five

Every sport stakes out its own balance of action and potential. Basketball is mostly action, while complaints about baseball’s inherent “boringness” stem from its nature as a sport in which something could happen at any moment, but mostly doesn’t. The only true shock in a flat sprint stage is when the breakaway succeeds. The plucky few who dance away from the peloton at the beginning of the stage are the other whom the main group needs to define itself, or at least choose its pace. The goal is to pedal as languidly as possible but still catch the breakaway when things ramp up at the end for the final sprint. Whether because of weather, crashes, or miscalculation, every so often a breakaway beats the odds and succeeds.

Neither stage four nor stage five was such a day. So let’s talk a little about Jens Voigt.

Jens Voigt is my favorite cyclist, and I’m hardly alone in that. It’s not because he’s particularly great at cycling; if we’re talking palmares, he’s won the Criterium International five times, a grip of other small races, and put in a few days in the maillot jaune, but he’s hardly a world-beater. At not quite 41, he’s the oldest cyclist in this year’s Tour, but that’s not particularly noteworthy. Jens Voigt’s charm stems from the duality of persona: he is the most affable quote in the peloton, a German Barkleyesque figure who will always tell you what is on his mind. He’s a good bit more housetrained than Sir Charles, but he has the same shooting-from-the-hip style of avoiding cliché in favor of telling you how it is. At the same time, when he’s on the bike he’s happiest when he’s at the front, putting up a pace high enough that he knows it’s hurting everyone else to hold his speed. His most famous quote is his motto “Shut up, legs,” but the most revealing of his bon mots is “Between you and me, we get paid to hurt other people. How much better can it get?”

Jens is one of the last products of the East German cycling program. The eastern bloc in general produced a lot of hard men cyclists, forged by countless hours of crushing training to perform like athletic machines, but because cycling is primarily a Western European sport, East Germany had more than its share. Voigt never reached the heights of his contemporaries Andreas Klöden and Jan Ullrich, but his bubbly, accented no-bullshit act turned him into a beloved figure in a way that the others never managed. Klöden has remained, at least outwardly, a closed book; Ullrich partied too hard once the wall came down. Voigt tweets about his children and domestic hilarity, in between bouts of doing his damndest to inflict suffering on his coworkers. He’s equally at home telling the internet about goldfish troubles, riding a children’s bike for 40 km because he wrecked his in a crash during a race, or spending 20km putting the rest of a race in a bad place.

Jens has gotten a lot of camera time so far this Tour. He and Yaroslav Popovich, another old eastern bloc warhorse on the Radioshack team, have been doing the bulk of the pace-setting for teammate Fabian Cancellara to protect his yellow jersey. He’s easy to pick out, with his colorfully mirrored shades and lanky frame, cheerfully spinning away at the front of the pack. He doesn’t get to cause any pain until the roads turn uphill in the Pyranees and Alps in a week or two, but it’s always nice to see him. You never quite know what he’s going to do, but you can count on him doing it as hard as he can, and then saying insightfully odd things about it afterwards.

What’s that? You want to know what actually happened in stages four and five? Oh, right. Both breakaways were caught, so both stages were field sprints. In stage four, Andre Greipel’s Lotto-Belisol teammates led him out perfectly, and he sling-shotted his way to the stage victory. In stage five, a crash near the front with 2.7 kilometers left cut down the leadout teams, so the top sprinters who weren’t cleared out by the crash had to jockey with each other for position. Greipel timed his move there perfectly too, and won again. He trails our dancing friend Peter Sagan and Matt Goss for the green sprinter’s jersey, but is ahead of Mark Cavendish, who is still the odds-on favorite to wear that jersey on the Champs-Elysee. The sprinting race is shaping up to be a brawl between the expected heavyweights, unless Sagan can continue to buck the established pecking order.

Photo via Getty Images

The Evolution of the F1 Car

F1 is one of those sports I wish I knew more about, but have no real easy way of educating myself on and exposing myself to as a west-coast American. Everything I've seen of it looks to be a fascinating intersection of engineering brinksmanship and driving skill. This video walks through the evolution of the F1 car, in a stylized but informative way.

Evolution of the F1 Car from Ruf Blacklock on Vimeo.

Via things magazine.
Due to 4th of July celebrations, I'll recap stages four and five tomorrow. In the meantime, here are three photos from stage four:

Andre Greipel wins the sprint for the stage; his leadout team celebrates in the background.

Fans along the route often dress up in kooky ways, hoping to catch the helicopter camera's attention as it passes over. I have genuinely no idea what these people are up to.

There are a gajillion versions of this shot.

Photos via AP and Reuters

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

2012 Tour de France: Stage Three

Some days in the Tour everything seems easy. The boulevards for the sprints are expansive. The countryside across which the peloton churns en route to the finish is paved with broad, pleasant roads. The descents are sweeping, the route wide open. The riders can relax, and worry only about their legs and the rest of the field. On other days, today very much included, everything seems just a little too small. The roads are narrow, packing the peloton into each other and increasing the risk of two riders bumping tires and touching off a pileup. The sprints are interrupted by curves, bunching the riders at the least opportune moment, when the speed is highest and the margin for error is smallest. When such a day falls in the first week of the Tour, before the pack has settled into itself, the claustrophobia lends to a skittishness that, perversely, causes the crashes the riders are worried about.

On a narrow lane like those of stage three, any rider in the peloton going down immediately creates a clusterfuck behind him. Those immediately following can’t help but hit him and go down, and a shockwave spreads behind and out through the riders coming upon him. At low speeds, it’s a traffic jam. At high speeds, it can become a meat grinder. Today there were four crashes on the road, and the first dropouts of the Tour were forced. A fractured tibia and collarbone knocked two riders out, and a third broke his hip and, though he finished the stage, seems likely to be done. Some poor anonymous bastard was ejected off of the road and rolled hard into a wire fence. Countless riders went down protected only by their helmets and lycra. It’s not a contact sport, but when it goes wrong it goes wrong hard.

But, of course, the race continues unabated amid crashes. If a true contender goes down in or is held up behind a crash, etiquette dictates the pack wait for him, but otherwise the race is ruthless, and anyone caught in an accident gets to follow it with a frenzied ride to reattach himself to the back of the peloton, hopefully with the aid of others also caught out by the crash.

So on the race went. Things are still early, and the heavyweights are still feeling out this year’s version of the Tour, more concerned with not making a mistake than with trying anything. The peloton caught the breakaway on one of the several climbs near the finishing climb of the race, and then wound up to race to the finish.

On the downhill after the climb, with four kilometers left, Sylvain Chavanel broke from the head of the race to try to go it alone. It wasn’t an impossible move, but it was a desperate one. Chavanel is a French racer, which is currently a romantically doomed lot in cycling. France loves cycling, and would explode if a Frenchman were to win the Tour, but they haven’t produced a champion since the 80s. When Thomas Voeckler held onto the maillot jaune for 10 days last year he became a national hero. Chavanel’s move off the front was ill-advised, but he isn’t a strong enough rider to contest the sprint on the final climb, and today was the day the Tour was back on French soil, so of course he had to make a move. He held them off until the penultimate climb, but then he faded. It was valiant, it was a bold strategic play, but it was never going to work.

And so, instead of a world-beating French victory, we have a phenom. Twenty-two year-old Peter Sagan, who you might remember from his fine double teapot-to-chicken victory celebration in stage one, outkicked the field on the final uphill to win his second stage. If this is all he does in this year’s Tour, he is a young rider with a bright future. If he can win a handful more times this convincingly, he will have forcefully inserted himself into the conversation for who can win the green jersey for best sprinter. Either way, he has the best victory celebrations going right now. As he crossed the line at the end of stage three, he pumped his arms like a runner. (I'm sorry I can't embed videos of these, but ASO seems to treat YouTube much like MLB does.) Most riders appeal to god like home run hitters touching the plate or throw their arms wide; Sagan is just trying to entertain. He termed today’s the Gump, saying that like Forrest Gump ran when he was told to run, he will win when he is told to win. We’ll see if that remains true, but so far his results are unassailable.

Photos via Reuters

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

2012 Tour de France: Stage Two

Topology is destiny in any bike race, and stage two today was as pure a sprint stage as you’re likely to find. Such things when they play to form, and they nearly always do, are an act in two parts.

The first act is the leisurely day out. A small breakaway escapes the peloton, and has a day on the lam. Once they’ve established an adequate gap over the peloton, everyone settles in. Today, three riders won themselves a day away from the pack, galavanting off the front to poach climb and intermediate sprint points, three riders too young or marginal for anyone to worry about their lead on the field sticking over the course of the day. They cruise along, working hard but getting to spend their few stolen hours on television, while the rest of the riders have an easy day on flat terrain. Those of us following along at home are treated to some UNESCO World Heritage Site and a few top-notch chateaus. Everything goes smoothly for all parties.

The second act is the chase and gathering storm. As the distance remaining dwindles, the truly fast men move to the front of the peloton and raise the speed. The break riders may bury themselves trying to stay free, but they’re doomed. The peloton surges down the road like a wave, riders revolving onto the front while all try to move to the front of the pack. Today Cadel Evans’ BMC teammates set the pace for him for a good stretch, not to position him for the sprint but to keep him in front of any trouble. At some point near but not actually close to the finish, the peloton subsumes the break riders, tired from their day, and just as quickly ejects them from its rear. The teams vying for the spring victory peel through their riders like a car accelerates upwards through its gears, with each rider leapfrogged by his faster peer until the team’s true alpha speedster is delivered at the front, a few hundred meters from the finish line.

There is a pleasant opacity to the mechanics of who wins a field sprint victory. The leadout trains that carry the top dogs to the finish line are perfectly evident, but the proportions in the mixture of physical form, tactical savvy, and luck that dictate victory are totally unknowable. The concreteness that a settled result lends to circumstance sets the winner in amber, makes all successful moves feel predestined. Today World Champion Mark Cavendish burnished his reputation as the best sprinter in the sport, freelancing onto his rival Andre Greipel’s rear wheel in the last stretch, and then timed his passing move perfectly to earn the win. Did he play his legs perfectly? Did Greipel just not have quite as much in him today? It doesn’t matter, because the day is his now.

Photo via Reuters

Monday, July 2, 2012

2012 Tour de France: Prologue and Stage One


The Tour de France starts with a short time trial, because it has to start somehow. It also starts in Belgium this year, because its organizers like to spread the wealth around a bit and don’t worry too much about the literal truth of the names of things. It’s always a short course, 6.4 km this year, and no significant time is gained or lost. The riders race the course alone, staggered by a large enough time gap that they don’t meet each other on the course. This year the prologue had several tight turns but no climbs, so it favored the time trialists who have good bike handling skills and can quickly accelerate up to speed out of a turn over the pure horsepower riders who can churn a large gear endlessly. Not much of import is decided in the prologue, but it’s always fun to see the riders decked out in their TT gear, looking like neon insectoid aliens in the skinsuits and teardrop helmets, crouched in their wind-tunnel positions on their aero bikes, and the winner gets to wear the first maillot jaune of the year.

Because the course is so short, every rider gets the luxury of riding for himself, for glory. In a longer time trial the riders with no chance of noteworthy result are obligated to ride hard enough to beat the time cutoff but otherwise conserve energy, but in the prologue every man is straining against his limits. Some because they could win, but all because it’s the first day of the new Tour de France, whether it’s their first or seventeenth1, so you give it what you’ve got.
1: Apparently the seventeenth Tour is the golden carbon bike anniversary?
On such a course, Fabian Cancellara wins. It’s nice that they compete, that everyone gets a chance, but of course he wins. The man is nicknamed Spartacus, and no one thinks it’s ironic or funny. There was a kerfuffle a couple years ago in which he was accused of using a secret electric motor in his bike to win two spring classics in decisive fashion. He doesn’t have the top speed of the drag race sprinters, but over any real distance, he’s unstoppable, and this year's prologue was no exception. It's the fifth year he's won the first yellow jersey, tying him with Bernard Hinault for the all-time lead. If there’s a secret Swiss lab pumping out polite, discrete, dominant athletes, he’s the other showpiece next to Federer, and it’s closer than you might imagine.2
2: I imagine those scientists shake their head when Thabo comes up, but they might be too busy trying to make a Swiss soccer player who doesn't suck.

Stage One:

The prologue is the credit roll, the reintroduction of your favorite characters, but there isn’t much meat to it. Cancellara spent all of seven minutes and thirteen seconds on the course. The last-place finisher, Roy Curvers, added barely more than a minute to that time. There’s a reason it doesn’t garner a stage number. Stage one is the first full episode, when the season kicks in in earnest. The stage was 207.5 km this year, with a handful of moderate climbs to punch things up. Unlike the individual spurts of effort in the prologue, this is five hours of full-on peloton racing, full of all your favorite racers and new up-and-comers. There are Jens Voigt and Yaroslav Popovich, setting the pace at the front for Radioshack. There’s Cancellara in yellow. There's Vladimir Karpets, who's not that good but has the best name in the game. There’s Cadel Evans, whose Tour victory last year let him enjoy the same sort of reputation level-up Dirk's title earned him. There are some lovely helicopter shots of chateaus, for which the ever-prepped announcers will be happy to give you the elevator pitch history. (Five hours is a lot of airtime to fill, ok? They are alway legitimately gorgeous.)

The thing about the first stage is that nothing really happens except accidents. The hills aren’t major, so no time losses are really in play, and this year there was an uphill finish, so the sprinters don’t get to wind things up for a frenzied field sprint finish. There was a six man breakaway, because there’s always a breakaway, but it was just young nobodies, trying to steal the first King of the Mountains jersey. The sprinters contested the intermediate sprint, but they were just feeling each other out for this year with nothing real on the line yet. The general classification contenders sit near the front of the pack so that they won’t lose time in a crash3, but don’t make any serious moves beyond that.
3: This is not a hypothetical. The (now-disgraced) Alberto Contador, who started last year's Tour as reigning champion, lost significant time behind a crash in Stage One and never completely recovered from that time loss.
There were a couple small crashes toward the back of the peloton heading toward the end of the stage. Nothing too dramatic, but it did seem to spook the riders. The sprinters teams would normally lift the pace towards any finish with a sprint final, but they were legitimately hauling ass at the end of today's stage. They sustained about forty miles per hour on the run-in to the final climb, which is crazy. Forty. On bikes. At the climb, the more powerful riders jumped off the front of the field. Cancellara made a strong move to gain a little time on the field to pad the margin by which he’s holding the yellow jersey, but he couldn’t make it stick, and young Slovakian Peter Sagan sprinted past him to win the stage. If you don’t watch bike racing, you probably don’t know about the delightful oddity that is the cycling victory celebration. Riders try to look exultant, or cocky, or whatever else they want, but it is pretty much impossible to look athletically majestic when you’re clad in neon and can’t gesticulate too much without upsetting the bike you’re riding hands-free. Your jersey is too tight to pop, your legs are clipped to the pedals, and nobody is really willing to risk eating shit right after winning. Sagan decided to baptize this year’s first stage with a combination double teapot and then chicken dance flexing, maybe? I’m not totally sure what to call it, but it was fine work, and a great way to cap the first stage.

Photos via AP and Getty Images.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Living With Tanking

The HoopIdea campaign has been making a lot of noise around the NBA blogosphere about on how we can stop the nefarious art of tanking. Most everyone seems to agree that tanking is a bad thing, so the talk is of how to stop it. But that’s the wrong conversation. The question shouldn’t be “How do we stop tanking?” The question should be “What is the purpose of the draft?”, or, put another way, “How should the league be shaped?” If you want to frame the conversation around tanking, the first question to ask is “Is tanking a problem worth solving?”, not how to eradicate it.

The NBA, is a superstar’s league. At any given time, there are only a handful of players in the league who are good enough to lead a team to postseason glory. If the league’s goal is to promote competitive balance, to keep good teams from drafting incoming impact players and staying on top, the worst teams need a mechanism to improve. That’s why the worst teams get the best odds at the #1 pick. It’s great to say that all teams should be trying their hardest to win every game, but that ignores the fact that there is going to be tension between a team’s short term and long term goals sometimes, and no matter how Kantian you may want to frame a team’s obligations in any given game as being, front offices would be abdicating their duties if they didn’t approach things in a more realpolitik way.
“Right now superstar-grade players are going into a lottery populated by the worst teams, in a sport where one great player has more impact than in any other team sport and is locked into below-market salaries throughout their careers (because of rookie scale contracts followed by maximum-salary limits).

Meanwhile, teams that win consistently very seldom get players like that, by trade or any other means. Essentially, the best-run teams are penalized while the worst-run teams are rewarded.”

Did you catch the shift in that last sentence? The rest of the quotation is calling the best teams the ones that win the most, and the worst the ones that win the least, but then the last sentence conflates win-loss record with front office ability. But that’s not right, and sometimes exactly backwards. Do you think Otis Smith is one of the best GMs in the league? The Magic have Dwight Howard and have contended in the East in recent years, while the Bobcats got Emeka Okafor and a death spiral, and I don’t think you can chalk it up to front-savvy. In the NBA, to be a team that has a chance at rings, you need a top-tier talent. “Only four NBA champions in the last 26 years were led by players selected outside the top six picks in the draft.” Assuming it’s safe to say the goal of an NBA team is to win championships, teams that aren’t legitimate contenders should be plotting how to become one.

The NBA gives the best draft picks to the worst teams because those are the teams that need an infusion of talent the most. Some bad teams are the result of incompetent general management; some bad teams are the result of injuries; some are the result of the intentional dismantling of a good team. Regardless of how a team became bad, it needs the draft to move upwards. Because the NBA salary cap compresses the salaries of the best players, bad teams can’t use overpayment as an incentive to lure in free agents. No matter how much cap space the Bobcats have this offseason, what self-respecting player is going to sign there if he has better options?

Most of the suggestions I’ve see to “solve” tanking involve shifting the draft structure. The idea seems to be that if we can reward teams that don’t make the playoffs for winning, rather than losing, then tanking will stop. There are three problems with this approach:

1) Tanking is not the only, or even the biggest, reason teams lose. I’ll grant that when a Tim Duncan or a LeBron James is dangling in the draft, the calculus shifts, but even in those years, the worst teams record-wise were also the worst-teams talent-wise. The Bobcats, Wizards, Hornets, Sacramento, and Cleveland aren’t tanking; they’re bad. The Wizards shipped some knuckleheads out for Nene; New Orleans has dealt with injuries; Sacramento and Cleveland are more invested in developing their young players than contending right away. (I hope MJ is winning a lot of golf prop bets these days, because Charlotte is just straight awful.) There is not enough talent to go around, even putting transcendent stars aside, and injuries and luck matter in a team’s chances. Rejiggering the draft to reward the best non-playoff teams would rob genuinely awful teams of their only sure route to improvement. Take a shot at good lottery picks away from Charlotte, and how are they supposed to get better? If rebuilding for a terrible team becomes a long-term affair that requires flawless late-first round drafting, there will be an eddy of shitty teams at the bottom of the league with no hope of improvement. If you think watching a team bag the end of a season is bad for the fans, what do you think a decade of relentless awfulness would do for them? The worst thing for an NBA team to be right now is decent but no better; a team in that position can try to get better, or get short-term worse to be long-term better. If we make the worst thing for an NBA team to be genuinely bad, how is such a team supposed to escape that prison?

2) I have yet to see anyone actually define where the line is between tanking and permissible long-term planning. It seems to me that most of the decisions being made that cost teams victories happen in the front office. Is it tanking to be extra cautious bringing a marquee player back from an injury if the playoffs aren’t going to happen? Is it tanking to trade away good players to improve next year’s team? Is it tanking to play young players with better veterans riding the pine in the hope that they’ll develop into something special down the line?1 A lot of what is being tarred as tanking in this discussion could justifiably be called prioritizing the long-term over the short-term.
1: Royal jelly!
3) It wouldn’t stop tanking: it would shift it. This is the realpolitik part of tanking. Tanking is how teams with no real shot at making/succeeding in the playoffs maximize their chances at a good draft pick. If we change how the draft is organized, we change where and when that tanking would happen, not whether it does. If the lottery order is reversed, you’ll have today’s 7 and 8 seed teams tanking at the end of the season to miss the playoffs. If we reward wins after a team is mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, you’ll see teams with no shot at the postseason sitting their best players with dubious injuries mid-season to clinch that elimination and then start winning again.2 It is a front office’s job to shepherd a team towards championships, not to play by the unwritten rules. That is why we have tanking now, and why we’ll always have tanking. Changing the draft would change the form, but unless you want to start judging the intent behind moves teams make 3 and punishing them for not following the spirit of the law, tanking will always exist.
2: Judging teams on how they perform relative to preseason projections seems like a particularly nonsensical suggestion to me. How would such a system take trades into account? How would you keep a significant injury from screwing a team over? Team rosters often shift significantly over the course of the season, so how can you judge a team’s season by who suits up for the first game of the year?
3: Even David Stern’s biggest detractors wouldn’t accuse him of being that Stalinesque.
Here’s the other question: who exactly is tanking hurting? Clearly if offends the sensibilities of Jeff Van Gundy and Henry Abbott, for whom I weep. Beyond their loud objections, however, I have only seen anecdotal hand wringing about “the fans.”4 Fans want to see a good game, and their team win, but they also want to cheer for a long-term success. Watching his or her team lose a game the night you shelled out to go to the arena kills a fan’s evening; watching their team suck for years on end kills a fanbase.
4: Won’t someone please think of “the children”!
As a non-Blazers fan resident of Portland, Raymond Felton’s season-long trolling of the team and its fans has been as hilarious as it is sad. He showed up out of shape and underachieved; feuded with the team’s long-time coach; was so bad that the team, though desperate to move him, couldn’t find any takers; was instrumental in the locker room revolt that ended up with McMillan’s firing; and now that the team has punted on the season refuses to roll over, and is finally playing near the level that was expected of him. I don’t doubt that he’s doing the best he can to do his job, but he has done exactly the wrong thing for the Blazers’ interests at seemingly every turn this season. It’s been a dizzying ride.

The gripe I hear the most about him these days is the last of those crimes. Felton is perhaps the loudest thing to have gone wrong for the Blazers this season5, but he’s hardly the only one. My Blazers fan friends grumble about how he can’t even get tanking right. All that’s left to root for at this point is the future, so every game a suddenly motivated Felton steals from the jaws of defeat is actively hurting the team’s chances at a better tomorrow. Felton is already a persona non grata, but the biggest thing he could do right now to endear himself to fans is to play poorly. Fans want their team to succeed, but not tonight at the expense of tomorrow. Give them some credit.
5: Insert depressing Greg Oden caveat here.

Some form of tanking, broadly defined, will exist so long as a team’s long-term interests don’t align with winning every game possible. Players and coaches have their pride on the line and are trying to win, but front offices have to do what is best for the team, and sometimes that will include putting the team in a position where short-term victories are hard to win. We can eradicate tanking in the current form by changing how the draft is structured, but before we start calling for that, we need to take a hard look at what effects that would have on the league as a whole, and what would take its place. The NBA is a league of haves and have-nots, with superstars as the key currency. The draft as currently constructed is the best way to distribute new talent given that reality. Tanking, insofar as we can identify it precisely, sucks. But it is the price we pay for the draft’s structure, and I have yet to see a proposed solution to the “problem” of tanking that wouldn’t make the league as a whole worse. People cheat on their taxes; that doesn’t mean we should change how taxes work. Fans can handle their teams planning for the future, even if it means sucking short-term. We don’t have to like tanking, but part of being an adult is living with things you don’t like when the alternatives are worse.
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