The Big Engine that Just Might

The Big Engine that Just Might

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I think the last time I cheered for the guy who won the Tour de France must have been Greg LeMond in 1990. Although he would later become one of my favorite riders ever, I didn’t cheer for Jan Ullrich in 1997 because wasn’t cool enough yet.  I didn’t cheer for another eternal favorite, Marco Pantani, in 1998 because I was too distracted by whatever kids in college do when they turn 21 and become compelled to explore the effects of (legally) combining alcohol with every imaginable activity.

I rarely cheer for the guy who wins a bike race because I’m usually busy cheering for the guy who will probably loose it, just.  This underdog business started in 1991, when I hoped Gianni Bugno would win the Tour.  I could never get excited about Miguel Indurain (there really wasn’t anything exciting about him, was there?), but I had never been a fan of Bugno’s, either.  That changed the moment I saw him fighting up to Val-Louron, pedaling in his smooth style wearing his tricolore of Italian Road Champion in hopeless pursuit of the escaped Indurain and Claudio Chiappucci.  It was at that moment that I embarked on a journey of heartbreak punctuated by brief moments of elation when my favorite riders defy the odds to experience success in the biggest races.

There is nothing exciting about watching the best riders in the world win the biggest races in the world time and again. There is no excitement in watching the pre-race favorite pull on the Maillot Jaune, again.  There is no excitement in watching the best lead out train deliver the fastest sprinter to the line at the close of every flat race.  It’s always impressive – don’t get me wrong – but it isn’t “exciting”.  It is the opposite, actually – it’s “predictable”.

Exciting is watching a rider show courage in the face of loads of pain and almost certain defeat. Exciting is watching a rider take a chance on a day-long break. Exciting is watching a rider attack over and over again because maybe just one more attack is all it will take to win. The riders who dare hope and take chances are those who inspire me. This is a hard road; I spend most of the races disappointed that my favorite rider lost. But on the days when they win, the thrill tastes sweet upon my tongue.

I cheered for Bugno throughout the ’91 Tour and again in ’92. He was Gianni Bugno, the Big Engine that Just Might. By ’93, he was so deeply into his “Indurain Complex” that he was more “frustrating” than he was “exciting”; he had become Gianni Bugno, the Big Engine that Usually Didn’t. That was a different kind of predictable, but predictable all the same. I moved on, and over the years have found various other riders to support in equal measure who each show similar properties in terms of talent, skill, determination, and likelihood of winning.

Le Grand Frére Grimpeur is my current favorite Big Engine that Just Might, and I think he’ll stay in that position throughout his career, mostly because he’s not likely to ever be good enough to win the Tour.  But every year I’ll hope he does, because that would be exciting. Sadly, he crashed out this year, and as such Le Petite Frére Grimpeur took his place. The little zipper might have won, too, were it not for some bad luck and questionable tactics.  It wasn’t to be, and this year at least, he was the Big Engine that Couldn’t Quite.

And therein lies the secret: He was almost The Big Engine that Barely Did.  And next year he appears to be the Big Engine that Probably Could but Might Not. But as soon as he become the Big Engine That Usually Does, it stops being exciting, and I’ll have to move on.

As far as Tours de France go – certainly those in the last decade – the 2010 edition ranks among the best, even if we could have been treated to less tactical riding and more opportunistic attacks.  The defending champion showed signs of being the Big Engine that Might Not, and that gave for lots of excitement on both sides of the cheering fence. Here’s hoping next year’s edition proves to be at least as good as this one.

// Nostalgia // Racing

  1. Next years race will be better because the “old guard” will have left allowing for a new generation to take up the challenge. Not that anyone will be able to challenge The Berti & Le Petite Frère Grimpeur Show. But at least the supporting cast will have been freshened up.

    All I hope for is that there might be a Frenchman in amongst those also-rans and that someone/somepeople actually decide that in order to beat them, you have to do things differently.

    However it would appear that the days of riders attacking endlessly through the mountains are gone with the cleaner racing. You want exciting, then the drugs need to return.

  2. @Jarvis

    Mate I reckon you are looking at the past with rose colored glasses (potentially purchased during a drug induced haze?). The Tour de France rarely has close finishes (we have been spoilt post-Armstrong) and is often effectively decided relatively early in race during early climbing stages when the best rider of the race stamps his authority. This was certainly the case in the Armstrong era (save for 03) and is backed up by Eddy Merckx who has always said that the TdF is the easiest race to win because it was the toughest – so the best rider prevailed.

    If we say the EPO period began at or around the commencement of the InduReign, save for:
    – pantani in 98; and
    – the little Basques in 03,

    pray tell when we have seen a Tour with true GC riders “attacking endlessly through the mountains”.

    The Giro parcours, with far steeper inclines, has always lent itself to more thrilling attacks from climbers, whereas the Tour sees far longer climbs which make the GC appear to be more a race of attrition.

  3. You can’t really blame a rider who establishes a lead and then simply looks to ensure he and his team protect it. So the issue is how to make attacks by others more likely and to make that protection more difficult. Bringing back time bonuses could help (even though that looks very unlikely in the short term). And changing the KOM comp to provide for fewer intermediate points so that more focuses on the true mountains would add interest (and possibly also result in the key GC guys going for it on those stages in order to win the newly presitigious dotty jumper). But I wouldn’t want to go too far with this. I found plenty to be fixated on in the battle for third, the Hesejdal story, the guilty schadenfreude as I watched EggTimer go backwards and Sky fall to earth, etc. And I am sure I enjoyed it more than I would’ve enjoyed watching fireworks by a bunch of guys who I thought were all juiced to the gills.

  4. Favorites are good. They raise the bar for everyone else. Thing is though, when you’ve got a favorite favorite like Bertie or LA (back in the day) that’s when things start to get humdrum. When I picked LA for the win in the VSP I had a very strong voice in my head saying Bertie was going to win. I knew better than to pick LA. But I picked him based on other factors like team strength and experience. That’s where things start to get murky, the indirects. Picking the strongest rider, in this case, was really a no-brainer. It’s all the other factors when there’s a clear favorite that can make a race more competetive. That being said, I do agree, in part, with Jarvis on the other thread. The Grimpito should have attacked sooner and more often on the Tourmalet, which I assume he could’ve. He really didn’t have anything to lose. As the k’s ticked by I kept thinking, wtf Grimp why aren’t you going? I’m not saying he wouldn’t won but nothing was served by letting Bertie sit on his wheel all the way up that climb.

    and let me just say again, Chiapucci was a goofy looking fuck

  5. Gianni Bugno, Gianni Bugno, Gianni Bugno…two time World Champion, Milan-San Remo, Giro, pink jersey start to fucking finish, out sprinted Johan Museeuw in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Never quite good enough indeed. Being wheat-intolerant, Gianni spreads a think coating of Rule #5 on his fried polenta in the morning.

    Frank, I know we both have little Gianno Bugno altars deep in the crawl space of our houses. We can crawl down there, by the warmth of the water heater, and feel safe.

    Can we talk? Bugno is now a helicopter pilot. He is looking a litte better than Lemond these days.

  6. Man! Bugno got hot! If I’m that good looking at 50 I’ll be happy*. My velomihottie likes that photo. Although he does look like he could pass for Invisible Denis’ older brother as well

    @Marcus
    My point, that I made badly, was that Frank wrote

    Exciting is watching a rider take a chance on a day-long break. Exciting is watching a rider attack over and over again because maybe just one more attack is all it will take to win.

    But that was a construct of an era when riders caned as many drugs as they could, it isn’t something that clean riders are physiologically able to do. Attacking early in a stage is harder to do these days because domestiques are so much fitter/stronger than they used to be it is easier for The Contender to order others to chase people down

    But to answer your question: Chiappucci, Tricky Dicky, Pantani, Ullrich.

    *it’ll never happen, I don’t have the hair

  7. Having been away, (mentally not physically) the first article I see is this and Johns post. John I can always trust you to slap down the essence of what is being talked about and Gianni is looking like what Tom Couchruise wishes he could look like. It would be fun to compare old bike riders and see who is still in shape… Alter by the water heater – you make me laugh out loud through my nose.

    Indurain was boring, Armstrong was inevitable then the Mennonite mutant – now the tour is fun again and next year will be a great race. The Grimpuers will be older/better and together, newbie’s like Gesink will be there in the mix. Can’t wait.

    p.s. Geof the jersey looks good on you!

  8. @Rob
    Thanks. Am thinking of having some “Don’t sit on my goldfish” t-shirts made up in recognition of my current (and almost certainly temporary) status.

    And you look great in green, Rob.

  9. Bugno is one of the reasons I have too many steel Mosers in the stable. Classy bikes, classy rider.

  10. The 2010 Tour was great, one of the best in a few years. The “Lance Factor” – his last Tour, 3rd in the Prologue (possible #8?), the flat, then the crashes. I actually have more respect for Lance since Version 2. His “post retirement” era wasn’t easy – broken collarbone with surgery, the crashes and bad luck, not being the hands down force of the race – yet he raced on. The dude obviously loves the sport, otherwise why come back and suffer like that? He could be lounging in Texas counting his dough. So, dig Lance or not – you gotta give him props for that.

    You also gotta give Chris Horner major kudos for his 10th place finish. The guy is one of the hardest working pros ever.

    The Schleck/Contador battle was fantastic. The thrown chain incident adding to the drama. The painful chess game on the climbs. The final time trial was awesome. The first half of the TT – can Schleck pull it off? Shades of the ’89 Tour, win by a few seconds? Not to be, but it forced Contador some stress and he rode hard for the win – taking some heat off the tossed chain attack “win”.

    Besides reading a bit about Schleck, I didn’t know much about him. I’m now a fan and I was pulling for him to win the Tour. His announcement that he was over the attack by Contador during his mechanical issue, and for the fans to stop booing Contador was pure class. I got a kick out of his interviews on Verses – the accent, the laid back but postive attitude, his jokes. When asked if he will watch the Tour for review – “No, I am not in love with myself”. Great stuff.

    With any luck, we’ll see a repeat of the battle in 2011. Should be even more interesting with brother Frank Schleck along for support.

  11. Can I be the “Four Banger That Got His Oil Drain Plug Left Loose By Jiffy Lube and Blew Up”?

  12. @john

    Frank, I know we both have little Gianno Bugno altars deep in the crawl space of our houses. We can crawl down there, by the warmth of the water heater, and feel safe.

    That picture of him is just too sweet. What a fucking man. Jesus, he looks like a tough bastard there. Christ.

    He is looking a litte better than Lemond these days.

    I saw a squashed banana last week that looked better than LeMond thesedays.

    As for the “not quite good enough”, I should have clarified, “Not quite good enough in the Tour.” He should have gone for the win in ’90. He could have done it, easily. That whole, “I want to learn about the Tour before trying to win it” approach is a bummer, because he could have been one of the storied doublers.

    Be still be beating heart.

  13. @James

    Bugno is one of the reasons I have too many not quite enough steel Mosers in the stable. Classy bikes, classy rider.

    Fixed your post.

  14. @Cyclops

    Can I be the “Four Banger That Got His Oil Drain Plug Left Loose By Jiffy Lube and Blew Up”?

    That is classic. There should be a special place in the motorcade for a guy riding around with a loose screw in the oil pan. I’ll nominate you every year.

  15. @Dan O

    His announcement that he was over the attack by Contador during his mechanical issue, and for the fans to stop booing Contador was pure class. I got a kick out of his interviews on Verses – the accent, the laid back but postive attitude, his jokes. When asked if he will watch the Tour for review – “No, I am not in love with myself”. Great stuff.

    How does a kid that young get so down to earth? And, does anyone else find him to have a surprisingly deep voice? I do.

    On Armstong:

    His “post retirement” era wasn’t easy – broken collarbone with surgery, the crashes and bad luck, not being the hands down force of the race – yet he raced on. The dude obviously loves the sport, otherwise why come back and suffer like that? He could be lounging in Texas counting his dough. So, dig Lance or not – you gotta give him props for that.

    It’s an interesting situation, and I’m not afraid to admit I don’t understand it. I think he sat on his couch in ’08 and said, “I used to spank those guys and make them take out my dirty laundry. I can win the Tour again.” I think he was surprised, and he never came back with the same desire and attention to detail. He said himself, he used to just repeat the same process and win, win, win. He never followed the process post-retirement, and he lost, lost. That’s OK, but I don’t understand why he would come back if he wan’t 100% committed.

    All that aside, I don’t like him and I don’t think he added a lot of positive value to the sport since his return. But I do respect him and until he sat up after his series of crashes, I was actually starting to like him. The underdog thing again, I suppose.

    @Jarvis
    He doe look a bit like Mench!!

    And Mench looks like Ralph Feines:

    Which means Bungno looks like Ralph. That makes him seem somehow less manly. I’m going to back to him just looking like a fucking stud. So scratch all that other stuff.

  16. Wonderful blog! Do you possess any hints for aiming writers?

  17. The Big Engine that Usually Didn’t.

    Brilliant, and the whole article sums up pretty much exactly how I felt about Bugno.

    Disagree about your criteria of what makes a Tour boring, but that’s a given. ;-)

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