Erik Zabel, the Tour de France and little philosophizing...
Erik Zabel has a lot of Tour de France experience - 11 years worth. And he
has a lot of Tour de France success, too - 12 stage wins and an astounding
number of green jerseys. But he won't be adding to those numbers this year. The
T-Mobile Team announced that they won't be taking their star sprinter to the
Tour. The team wants to concentrate fully on the podium and the yellow jersey -
a plan that leaves no room for a sprinter.
How do I feel about this? Frankly, I still don't really know. I was both
surprised and not surprised by the announcement. But maybe mostly surprised by
the fact that they were willing to make such a difficult - and in some quarters,
unpopular - decision.
It's easy to list the reasons not to take him. The biggest has to be his lack
of results so far this year - one single win. He has any number of second,
third, fourth and further back results. After-effects of his broken heel last
fall? The effect of his age, especially when up against the new generation of
super sprinters? Whatever the reason, he's just not delivering the goods this
year. When he was a sure bet for a few stage wins and the green jersey, it was
easy enough to give a place not only to him but also to a helper.
Which brings us to the second reason that he's not on the team. There are
nine precious places on a Tour team. Ideally, the team consists of a captain and
eight helpers. USPS/Discovery Channel is the perfect example: eight helpers
without personal ambitions and dedicated solely to the welfare of their captain.
Should one of those spaces be sacrificed to another cause? Should one or more of
those helpers save himself during the stage in order to focus his attention on
preparing a sprint at the end?
Many fans and at least one T-Mobile rider have made no secret of the fact
that they feel Zabel has no place on an Ullrich Tour team. Ullrich hasn't won
the Tour since 1997. He has never beaten Armstrong in the Tour, and this is his
last chance to do so. And so T-Mobile has decided to put all its energies into
the race for the yellow jersey.
T-Mobile has the luxury this year - or the complication, depending on how you
look at it - of having three podium winners on its team. Theoretically, if one
of them shows signs of weakness, one or both of the other two will step into the
breach. Or if one shows great strength and surges ahead, the other two will
sublimate their egos and ambitions and work for him. Theoretically. How it will
work in the practice remains to be seen.
These are the main reasons to leave Erik Zabel off the Tour team - he's too
old and he takes the place of a helper. So why should he ever have been
considered for the team in the first place and why was it such a surprise that
he wasn't nominated?
Well, after so many years, so many stage wins and so many green jerseys, it's
hard to say, "Ok, that's it, over and out, thanks but no thanks." There is a lot
of feeling that Zabel should be included on T-Mobile's Tour team for as long as
he continues to ride, or as long as he wants to. He has earned it, they say.
Certainly there have been Tours where Telekom's only results came from Zabel.
In the early days his stage wins were integral in drawing enough public
attention to convince Telekom to continue its sponsorship. And, yes, there was
an Erik Zabel at Telekom long before there was a Jan Ullrich at Telekom.
After having been the team's workhorse for so long - winning World Cup races,
winning the World Cup itself, one-day races, race stages, you name it, not to
mention being No. 1 on the UCI's World Ranking List for more weeks than I can
count - don't those count for anything? His pride, his ambition, his dedication,
and his overpowering work ethic - are they to be callously set aside?
Or do they even matter any more? Has pro cycling become a sport for soulless
number crunchers? You haven't won anything lately, so you're out of here. (What
my father used to call the "What-have-you-done-for-me-lately syndrome.") The
sponsor wants to expand its business to Russia or Japan or Finland, so the team
has to sign a rider from that country (whether it wants to or not). Big-name
riders are offered enormous sums of "start money" in order to attract them to
races. Some team jerseys are so plastered with sponsors' logos that the riders
have become mere walking (or pedalling) billboards.
And then there's the matter of personality. Who is the more popular German
rider - Erik Zabel, who grimly and doggedly has won almost everything he has set
his mind to, or Jan Ullrich, who grins and, with a twinkle in his eye, promises
to do better next year? Dumb question, right? It's the same in Italy -
Alessandro Petacchi outsprints the entire world with an astonishing consistency,
but is quiet and withdrawn. The public's darling is Damiano Cunego, also
successful, but bubbly and outgoing.
The question is, how much weight these aspects should carry? Is it right to
fill a Tour team place merely out of gratitude for past deeds and deny it to a
younger rider, eager to accomplish great deeds with his fresh legs? Or will the
Tour overwhelm the young pro, whereas the veteran can take it in stride and use
his experience to benefit himself and his team? These are unanswerable
questions, but the decisions have to be made nevertheless.
Well, I've gotten a long way away from Erik Zabel's non-participation in this
year's Tour - or have I?