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Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: In like a lion

Ah, March has finally arrived. That’s good news for so many reasons. March means spring is around the corner, and that means longer days, greener hills and girls in tank tops. It means that my birthday is coming up, followed by St. Patrick’s Day, one of the greatest non-reasons for getting drunk of all time. It means my income-tax refund is on the way, which should just about pay for the new mountain bike I ordered myself … for my birthday. But best of all, March means I don’t have to hear anyone else say, “It’s only February,” every time the pace heats up, the ride is longer than 35 miles

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By Neal Rogers

Ah, March has finally arrived. That’s good news for so many reasons. March means spring is around the corner, and that means longer days, greener hills and girls in tank tops. It means that my birthday is coming up, followed by St. Patrick’s Day, one of the greatest non-reasons for getting drunk of all time. It means my income-tax refund is on the way, which should just about pay for the new mountain bike I ordered myself … for my birthday.

But best of all, March means I don’t have to hear anyone else say, “It’s only February,” every time the pace heats up, the ride is longer than 35 miles or someone’s having a bad day.

I understand the whole “base miles in the winter, intensity in the spring, racing in the summer” philosophy. And if you’re a pro or have aspirations along those lines, that’s great. If you have enough time in your schedule to train according to regimen, or enough money to pay a coach, more power to you. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, or maybe I’m just a hammerhead, but I like to ride hard.

I love riding my road bike and I love riding my mountain bike. I dig thawing out after cool winter rides and dousing myself out of a water bottle on hot summer rides. I even enjoy riding in the wind. I’m not “training” for anything. I’m just addicted to riding the way a 16-year-old is to driving the family car, and I don’t care what month it is. Bottom line, if I can find the time in my schedule, I’m going to ride. And unless I’m injured or sick, I’m going to push myself. That’s what I enjoy out of riding.

For some people, riding is social. For others, especially those on bikes that weigh as much as a medium-sized dog, it’s an adrenaline rush. For me, it’s both of those – but it’s also a daily affirmation that I’m alive. Because there’s nothing, and I mean nothing, that makes you feel alive quite like gasping for breath, cross-eyed — even in February.

So welcome to March, boys and girls: George Hincapie is already winning races, the opening round of NORBA racing kicks off this weekend, and Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis and Alejandro Valverde will be racing at Paris-Nice this weekend. Think they rode hard last month? Hopefully I won’t have to hear anyone else say, “It’s only February” for another 11 months. In the meantime, enjoy the ride.

* * *

On to another topic: What’s going on with RONA dropping its elite women’s cycling team, but continuing to sponsor Genèviève Jeanson on an individual basis? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Last week a news release was sent out stating that, “RONA Inc. has confirmed that it will not extend its sponsorship of an elite women’s cycling team beyond 2004. In the light of changes in its market and development strategy since Team RONA was launched in December 2000, the Canadian home-improvement leader has decided to redeploy its sport-sponsorship funds. RONA will, however, continue to sponsor cyclist Genèviève Jeanson on an individual basis.”

“We have been very proud to link our name to such a high-performance cycling team,” said Claude Bernier, RONA executive vice president of traditional stores, and in charge of the team’s sponsorship since it began in 2001. “But we felt it was time to dedicate our limited resources to other sports-sponsorship vehicles that are better-suited to our current reality. Still, we’re pleased to be able to continue providing financial support to Genèviève as she pursues her cycling career.”

Why does this seem a little odd to me? Well, for starters, Jeanson and her coach Andre Aubut have had a dubious track record lately.

How about a little refresher? Let’s begin with Jeanson’s high hematocrit at the 2003 world championships, followed by accusations of EPO administration by a former physician that were later retracted. Last February, Jeanson did not start the Valley of the Sun stage race, blaming a sore throat, but it was later disclosed that the Québec Federation of Cycling Sports (FQSC), had denied her a racing license while it awaited answers regarding her hematocrit levels at the world championships. So Jeanson, an Arizona resident, sought and was granted a U.S. license from USA Cycling.

A sub-par showing last spring — Jeanson hurt her knee at the Tucson Bicycle Classic and then cracked on the Oak Glen climb while wearing the leader’s jersey at Redlands — came to a head when her hematocrit again tested over the allowed limit prior to the Fleche Wallonne World Cup. Jeanson was allowed to race when her B sample tested below the limit, but she didn’t do herself any favors by skipping a post-race test that could have seen her suspended for the remainder of the season. Awaiting her decision, Jeanson returned to win the Montréal World Cup and ultimately received a public warning and was fined 500 Swiss francs.

Following a disappointing Canadian road national championships, where Jeanson took sixth in the time trial and 11th in the road race, she was overlooked by the Canadian Cycling Association for the Olympic squad. Adding insult to injury, the CCA opened an investigation into charges that her coach, Aubut, spat at rider Anne Samplonius and cut her off with his car during the road nationals after Samplonius wrote an open letter to a number of publications, including VeloNews, criticizing USA Cycling and USADA for choosing to fine rather than suspend Jeanson for skipping her drug test in April.

So what does RONA, the largest Canadian distributor and retailer of hardware, home renovation and gardening products, decide to do? It decides to quit supporting the rest of the team, but keep its brand name plastered across Jeanson’s sinewy frame.

Jeanson, who took third place in this year’s Valley of the Sun stage race in Arizona, February 18-20, has announced that she plans to attend the Redlands Classic, the Montréal World Cup, the Tour du Grand Montréal and the Canadian national championships.

“I looked at the opportunities on existing teams in America and Europe, but I decided to treat myself to a year of freedom and flexibility,” explained the 23-year-old Canadian, from her home in Arizona, through a “team” press release. “I’m fortunate to have a personal sponsorship from RONA for the season, and I have kept my major equipment sponsors: Colnago bicycles, Biemme clothing, Sidi shoes and the American cycling supply distributor Trialtir. I want to take advantage of this opportunity to race for the pure fun of it and to choose my racing program as the season unfolds.”

Some will say it won’t matter that Jeanson is racing without a team, as she’s never really raced as a team rider anyhow. Jeannie Longo has freelanced her way to victory for years – why shouldn’t Jeanson?

I’d ask her about this myself, but contacting Jeanson for this story, or any story, has been more difficult than applying to buy a Bentley on a journalist’s salary with shares of Merck stock as a down payment. (Merck is the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the sometimes-lethal pain medication Vioxx; it has nothing to do with Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx. So calm down.)

I’m not sure exactly why, but the Jeanson camp hasn’t returned an e-mail or phone call of mine in, oh, over a year. Hey, wait a minute, that’s when all their troubles really started….

Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to attack Jeanson here. I’ve spoken with Jeanson, even had dinner with her and Aubut at the HP Women’s Challenge, and found her to be quite pleasant. She’s always been more than accommodating in a post-race interview, but there seems to be a veil of secrecy surrounding her in other circumstances. I guess more than anything, I just can’t understand the sponsor’s decision to cut the team, yet keep Jeanson. Understood, Jeanson is, was, whatever, the star of the team. But that star has dimmed a bit of late, whereas the other women on the team seemed to be able to stay out of trouble with the sport’s various governing bodies. Don’t they deserve a ride, too?

* * *

While I’m on the topic of corporate decision-making, I suppose I should address the conference call I sat in on Wednesday morning with OLN’s John Carter, vice president of production and executive producer, and on-air talents Phil Liggett and Bob Roll, concerning the network’s new show, “Cyclysm Sundays.”

To be honest, our chat didn’t unearth a whole lot that’s new for me to report. I wrote about the network’s new programming in last week’s column as well as in the multimedia department in the upcoming issue of VeloNews, and quite frankly, I think that’s enough pimping of OLN for a while. In summary, yes, there will be weekly broadcasts of racing from March through the Tour. In some instances, such as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, we will be seeing two hours of same-day footage. No, we will not be seeing daily coverage of the Giro d’Italia or the Vuelta a Espana. Yes, it’s because the ratings for those shows blew chunks.

Is that bad news? Absolutely. Is that a surprise? Maybe, maybe not. Is OLN the evil corporate enemy for failing to bring us these races? Mmm … probably not.

I understand everyone’s beef with OLN. The network used to broadcast all three grand tours, live, daily. The network used to broadcast Paris-Roubaix live — or at least it did in 2002, which I remember because former VN editor Jason Sumner and I headed over to former VN editor Bryan Jew’s house to watch on a Sunday morning. I still remember the excitement we all felt watching a muddy Johan Museeuw win, never suspecting that he was probably doped to the gills on “wasps.” Okay, maybe we suspected it a little.

OLN used to carry these events, or air them live, and now they do not. And, yes, that stinks. However, having spoken with Carter and OLN president Gavin Harvey, I do truly believe that they want to show more cycling. Maybe I’ve just fallen victim to their irresistible corporate charm, but I believe they would prefer to carry cycling coverage rather than “Billy Bob’s Beer and Bait Review.” Problem is, more folks out there would rather watch Cletus and Clem poking sticks at fish than watch scrawny Europeans in spandex spinning around on a bicycle. Go figure.

When USA Today’s Sal Ruibal asked why OLN isn’t airing the other grand tours if its goal is to “elevate the sport beyond the Tour,” Carter replied: “People are coming in droves to watch the Tour de France. Unfortunately, they are not doing it in numbers significantly to alter other programming.” Carter went on to explain that when the network was smaller, it was easier to decide to sacrifice airtime for events like the Giro — sort of a trial by fire — but since the network has grown, “there comes a point for diminishing returns.”

D’oh! I knew that was coming.

“To cover cycling is a pretty extensive proposition,” Carter continued, conceding that OLN is “not serving that core [cycling] constituency as well as it could.”

When I had the chance to ask a few questions, I asked about OLN’s conspicuous hole in its “Cyclysm Sundays” schedule from August to October. What’s that all about, I asked? And (how about this for a follow-up?) what about the world championships?

“We haven’t programmed the network for the rest of the year,” Carter answered. “We will have to see how it will play out. We are going to cover the sport beyond the Tour, if it is ‘Cyclysm Sundays’ or more traditional coverage.”

As for the world championships, Carter explained, “We continue to pursue, as always, the world championships. It’s never been a great business proposition, as far as rights issues, production costs…. It’s not conducive for a one-off show. With any kind of programming, particularly with this group, it all comes down to pretty basic business decisions. We’d love to have the world championships every year. Partly because of a lack of a strong American component, we can’t make it work.”

Lack of an American component? Uh, Lance, I think this means you, man. Take one for the team this year, whaddya say?

Still, one has to ask, is the glass half-empty or half-full? We still have bike racing on TV, once a week. We’re still going to see the highlights of these races without waiting for the video to come out six months later.

Besides, you’ve always got good old VeloNews.com to bring you up-to-the-minute live updates and results. Which is where this is all headed anyway, isn’t it? OLN has already announced that it’s developing three on-demand networks, allowing it to branch out its different lifestyle sports. Isn’t live footage already online on Eurosport? (And if it is, can someone tell me how to find it? I have never actually successfully watched live cycling online.) Then we won’t need TV networks anyway – or online cycling magazines, for that matter.

Hey, wait a minute….