How does the breakaway pack / peloton work? What is the story about the Lance Armstrong / Simeoni feud?
July 23, 2004 5:17 PM   Subscribe

Can someone who knows something about cycling or the Tour de France explain this article? How does the breakaway pack / peloton work? And what would be the "real story" behind this big Lance Armstrong / Simeoni feud?
posted by josh to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total)
Filippo Simeoni is suing Lance for defamation, which predictably has Lance pretty pissed off. Simeoni accused Lance of doping and Lance called him a liar, hence the lawsuit. So, when Simeoni broke free to get in the lead group, potentially winning the stage, Lance came forward and allegedly told the break away group "if you ride with Simeoni I will call my team up and kill this break away." Break aways only suceed when they contain no riders who might challenge the leaders; otherwise the leaders have their teams up the pace and chase them down. Here, instead of a challenge to Lance's overall position we have a personal feud.
posted by caddis at 5:37 PM on July 23, 2004

Okay. Here's what happened, in a bit of context.

Michele Ferrari is a doctor who's currently up on charges of supplying and administering illegal drugs (not steroids, but blood doping agents) to various athletes, including cyclists. Lance Armstrong is a friend of Ferrari's who saw him occasionally (maybe he still does, but regardless the two of them are fairly tight), and because blood doping is such a touchy issue in cycling these days, Armstrong is extremely vocal and vigilant about his friend's innocence, because Ferrari's guilt would taint everyone he's worked with (Barry Bonds is going through a similar situation right now with the BALCO people).

Okay. Simeoni is aparently providing crucial testimony against in this trial, and that puts him on the opposite side of Armstrong. These two really don't like each other, and both are essentially convinced that the other is ruining the sport.

Now, to the race itself. The Tour is three weeks long. It is impossible to go all out for 200 km a day, every day, through the long flat sprints, up & down the Alps with their obscene inclines, and everywhere in between, so most days and for most of the race, the field travels in a pack in order to save energy for the harder sections. This main section is known as the peloton. Racers will break out of the peloton and try to gain time, but you generally want to save your energy for the sections you're good at (some racers excel at mountain climbing, others are good in the flat, etc.)

Anyway, it's late in the Tour now, and Lance has the overall championship in hand. Simeoni is an also-ran, but he thought he saw a chance to maybe grab a stage win by breaking out of the peloton and sprinting ahead (there was a breakaway group already of a half-dozen racers, but none of them were within an hour of the overall lead, so the peloton was basically letting them go). Armstrong just decided to stick with Simeoni and join the breakaway and prevent him from getting a cheap stage win (stage wins mean money and sponsorship as well as headlines in the papers the next day, especially for also-rans).

I'm almost done here. Promise.

With Armstrong in the breakaway group, all the other racers and their teams who are still in contention now decided it was now worth the trouble to push a little harder to catch the breakaway group. The half-dozen guys actually in the breakaway group know this, and when Simeoni & Armstrong catch up to them, they all ask Armstrong to let them go, save the energy, you've got the race won, be a good sport, etc. Armstrong, who generally is gracious about these things (and in these long races, sportsmanship between teams and competitors is crucial), agrees, but he won't retreat to the peloton without Simeoni.

So Simeoni reluctantly agreed to retreat with Armstrong back to the peloton, and someone you've never heard of won the stage, and gets a little glory and a few bucks for Spain.

Got all that?
posted by chicobangs at 5:40 PM on July 23, 2004

Further discussion in this SpoFi thread.
posted by chicobangs at 6:11 PM on July 23, 2004

I don't think Armstrong would go off on his own like that to catch a breakaway that early in the day. He usually sticks with his team, and could certainly have caught up with them that way. I think it's unlikely he couldn't have got the rest of the team to go along with that, so he must have followed Simeoni specifically to get him talked into dropping back. It could be seen as a nice gesture, or it could be seen as a brazen display of arrogance and hostility. Either way, it was pretty cool.
posted by sfenders at 6:13 PM on July 23, 2004

...ah, I should've followed that link on preview. "First Armstrong chased Simeoni down, yelling at him to give up." Yeah.
posted by sfenders at 6:16 PM on July 23, 2004

Response by poster: Wow -- thanks, both of you, that is completely fascinating!

What do you guys think of the doping debate?
posted by josh at 6:18 PM on July 23, 2004

It was definitely not a nice gesture.

As to doping, perhaps I am niave, but I believe Armstrong is actually clean. I think he just works harder than everyone else. He is also more arrogant than just about everyone, although he tries to hide it in public. I am still secretly rooting for him to loose to one of the young guys chasing him, not by an Armstrong mishap, but by one of them just plain out riding him. That is not happening this year.
posted by caddis at 6:22 PM on July 23, 2004

Aggh. That would be "naive."

When is Matt going to fix the spell checker in AskMe and MetaTalk? (That is right, blame him for my error.....)
posted by caddis at 6:26 PM on July 23, 2004

Armstrong is about to win his 6th straight Tour, and by a wide margin. He's the best rider of his generation, maybe the best ever (he's in that tier of all-time greats, for sure), and he's still at the top of his game (and at 32, he's probably got a couple of top years still ahead if he wants them).

It's possible, I guess, that he's doing something fishy (there is that whole going-from-dying-of-cancer-to-being- the-greatest-cyclist-maybe-ever-in-a-few-short-years thing), but it's important to note that he has never, not ever, tested positive for anything, and they do blood and urine tests every day during the Tour, and a couple of times a week the rest of the training year. If he is doing something, it's gotta be way, way under the radar.

And even with all the effort he's made to show how clean he is, the stink of this scandal is going to drive him out of the sport before he's ready. Especially if Ferrari's convicted of these charges.

You can see how weary he is with the whole subject in the occasionally openly hostile interviews he has to deal with every single day after the race. If it was just about the bike, he could win 10 Tours in a row, easy.

(You know, I've written way too much about this in the last hour.)
posted by chicobangs at 6:36 PM on July 23, 2004

Does Greg Lemond detest Lance? Also, how will Lance vote in November?
posted by ParisParamus at 7:09 PM on July 23, 2004

Lemond and Armstrong have a past as well. It's boiled over recently, but Lemond wasn't the icon that Lance was, and I suspect professional jealousy.

Voting? Well, Kerry's a recreational cyclist, so that's a natural fit right there. Then again, Bush is from Texas, and so you'd think --

Oh, I get it. You were kidding.
posted by chicobangs at 8:12 PM on July 23, 2004

Until there's some real proof on the drug angle, I just say to people: Did Michael Jordan need them?
posted by billsaysthis at 9:38 PM on July 23, 2004

Armstrong vs. LeMond.

And truth is, most people were weary of Jordan and the Bulls' dominance, after six championships.
posted by dhartung at 12:41 AM on July 24, 2004

Didn't Simeoni in fact get caught using epo or some other banned substance himself a few years back?
posted by shoos at 2:22 AM on July 24, 2004

Did Michael Jordan need them?

It would depend on how competitive he wanted to be in cycling.
posted by biffa at 3:39 AM on July 24, 2004

Did Michael Jordan need them?

It's a shame they couldn't help him in golfing.
posted by jazzkat11 at 7:15 AM on July 24, 2004

Yes, Filippo Simeoni has admitted to using EPO and human growth hormone, that is one of the things he was testifying to in the Ferrari trial. One thing to mention to avoid confusion, the rider in question is Filippo Simeoni, not Gilberto Simeoni. Gilberto is a much better rider and more well known.
posted by caddis at 8:18 AM on July 24, 2004

The thing worth noting about this particular incident is its unusually personal nature. It's not uncommon for the peloton to allow a breakaway group on a particular stage to stay away and for a member of that group to go for a stage win, as long as nobody in that group is a threat to the overall leaders.

In this case Filippo Simeoni wasn't any kind of threat, but Armstrong has reason to dislike him personally, and had the strength and authority to disallow him a chance at winning the stage. Not very sporting, perhaps, but an interseting illustration of the politics and power structure inside the peloton.
posted by normy at 9:49 AM on July 24, 2004

This shot pretty well sums the whole thing up:

I bet the Armstrong-Simeoni lawsuit thing goes to 11 after the tour is over. Lance probably should have let the guy go on.
posted by mathowie at 11:30 AM on July 24, 2004

Actually there was a great shot on TV that was better than that still. Simeoni looked over his shoulder and saw the yellow jersey on his wheel. He threw his hands up in disbelief and frustration. It would have been one thing to see a Postie show up to deliver the message but to see the yellow jersey sprint up to catch him was unbelievable.

As I understand it, Simeoni is testifying that Ferrari showed him (Simeoni) how to use Epoetin and not get caught. He never actually accused Armstrong of doping but it was insinuated. In an interview, Armstrong said that Simeoni was lying and now Simeoni is suing for defamation of character.

Epo is a drug used to treat anemia in cancer patients. It helps the body produce more red blood cells. More red blood cells can carry more oxygen and that helps reduce the amount of lactic acid that's produced. Less acid means less pain in the legs.

More red blood cells are also helpful when riding in the high mountains. There is 21% oxygen in the high mountains, just like at sea level but the barometric pressure is less so the total amount of oxygen is less. This is why high altitude saps your stregnth.

Lance Armstrong survived advanced testicular cancer with metastasis to the lung and brain. They surgically removed one testicle and I believe they also surgically removed a tumor on his brain. If you have ever seen someone go through cancer treatment you know how painful and unpleasant it is. No matter how much pain the bike puts him through it will never be as bad as the cancer and treatment. It will never be as bad because he knows he can stop the pain whenever he chooses.

All the media reports I read indicated that the Peleton appreciated the move and they even showed Lance and Jan Ullrich chatting in the Peleton and Lance zipping his lips as if to say he shouldn't say anything. I got interested in cycling in 2001 when a friend of mine who was battling cancer turned me on to it. Go Lance!
posted by whatever at 4:58 PM on July 24, 2004

so armstrong messed up some middle-of-the-pack guy's day because he was helping to uncover drug abuse in the sport?
posted by andrew cooke at 5:51 PM on July 24, 2004

chicobangs, captivating. Thank you. Great thread.
posted by dmt at 10:53 AM on July 25, 2004

so armstrong messed up some middle-of-the-pack guy's day because he was helping to uncover drug abuse in the sport?

That's about the gist of it. As chicobangs explains in his excellent post above, Armstrong has some serious guilt-by-association worries if Ferrari goes down.

The thing about cycling is that it has a long and indistinguished history of turning a blind eye to performance enhancement through biochemistry. There's also a long established culture of protecting the professional enclave at all costs. Previous whistle-blowers have become overnight pariahs.

"Well, we're engaged in a feat of epic proportions. This is mankind against nature. Of course we're going to take drugs!"

The reason for this, one can speculate, is that professional cycling is a phenomenally gruelling sport, incomparable to almost any other athletic activity - given the level of performance required for three weeks of the Tour and the demands from teams and sponsors on the participants, its arguably surprising that drug use isn't more frequently exposed than it is. Furthermore, there's an insider's camaraderie that develops within the Tour organization. The event is effectively a mobile town of its own, where everyone involved has a role and a loyalty to making it all happen. Anyone stepping outside the cultural norms, therefore, can easily, if not necessarily justifiably, be accused of treachery.

Although now a little dated, Paul Kimmage's book is a good read if you're interested in the side of professional cycling that doesn't get discussed during the race coverage. Wiily Voet's story, recounted in Breaking the Chain is a more recent exposure of some of the dubious behaviour surrounding drug taking in pro cycling.
posted by normy at 12:44 PM on July 25, 2004

I know I'm a week late on this but I actually saw this happen - I live near Geneva and the stage past through France about 10 miles from my house. I watched the stage on the Cote de Collonges which was a Cat 4 climb. The break of 6 riders shot by and then two more riders were following - one of whom had a top which looked suspiciously yellow. I shouted "Go on Lance" and then they were gone.

I thought it strange at the time that Lance wasn't protected by the "Blue Train" and since read that he only completed 15k of the road stages without a Postal rider with him so I was pretty lucky to be stood in the right place...

It's a pretty crap picture compared to the professional coverage but at least I took it!
posted by jontyjago at 8:36 AM on July 30, 2004 [1 favorite]

Now that's cool, jontyjago. I'm more than a little jealous.
posted by chicobangs at 9:23 AM on July 30, 2004

Lance zipping his lips as if to say he shouldn't say anything.

I don't get this part. It looks so, "Omerta."
posted by mecran01 at 6:44 AM on August 4, 2004

There's now a good article at Daily Peloton with more detailed background info.
posted by normy at 8:14 AM on August 9, 2004

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