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Tick's Blick: 22 June 2005
By Tick
Date: 6/22/2005
Tick's Blick: 22 June 2005

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?

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