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Universal Sports Announcers Lose Their Minds at Vuelta al Pais Vasco

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Schlanger and Gogulski go there after Nairo Quintana's win in the Pais Vasco. Because... well, they were "surprised." And somehow, that makes it OK to slander a brilliant young athlete.

Universal Sports, the original NBC project for expanding its reach into less-covered Olympic sports including cycling, has added some value to the media landscape since their inception -- first, because something is better than nothing, and later as their primary announcing team of Steve Schlanger and Todd Gogulski demonstrated a pretty good handle on the action and how to describe it. Nowadays, I haven't bothered to watch as US disappeared from the digital channel airwaves and retreated into a battle to join the ruthless cable cartel, of which I am not presently a victim. But to many they are the American face of cycling coverage, if you believe two aging Brits can't really be the "American face" of anything.

I liked Schlanger and Gogulski. Until I saw this:

The subject of discussion is Nairo Quintana's stonking time trial that clinched the overall win in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco on Saturday. If you don't feel like watching the clip, let's just say They Went There. Starting with Schlanger:

"...[A]nd because it was so surprising today, let's face it, you can't bury your head in the sand anymore. Doping has been a big part of the cycling culture, so it's only fair to say that nobody gets the benefit of the doubt anymore, and when you have a surprising result like this from a guy who comes out of nowhere to do this good in a time trial, I think it's only fair to ask the question about substances and perhaps if they're still in play."

Suffice to say I don't think it's fair. But Gogulski, after shaking his head grimly, falls in line:

"You have to Steve. It's an ugly thing to think about, it's something I hope doesn't exist with Quintana, but this was a ride that nobody could have expected. Now to his credit, we've seen him climbing very well in the last few weeks, two summit finish wins, incredibly good climbing. We've seen him descending well, in the rain in this race as well...[inaudible]. You put that together into a time trial like this... it makes you wonder. It makes you ask the question, and I certainly hope he doesn't get busted...."

No it doesn't. It doesn't make you wonder this at all, if you haven't completely lost your fucking mind. Here's a quick tutorial on why Schlanger, Gogulski and Universal Sports owe Nairo Quintana and his Movistar team a public apology before they take the mic at another race.

"A guy who comes out of nowhere..."

Behold, a comparison of two riders. Rider 1 was born in 1990 and scored as follows in his past two-plus years on the big stage.

  • 2011: 344 points (using CQRanking)
  • 2012: 849
  • 2013 so far: 241... and a total of 1434 for all three years.

Rider 2 was born in 1990 and scored as follows in his past two-plus years on the big stage.

  • 2011: 60 points
  • 2012: 707
  • 2013 so far: 692... and a total of 1459 for all three years.

Rider #2 is Nairo Quintana, who "came out of nowhere." But Rider 1 put up roughly the same results. So Schlanger, would you therefore say Taylor Phinney came out of nowhere to finish 15th at Paris-Roubaix last year or 7th in Milano-Sanremo last month? Of course you wouldn't. You shouldn't. Because in Phinney's case, you were paying attention. [Phinney is awesome and needs no further discussion here. He is used purely for comparison's sake.]

In Quintana's case, because you haven't been paying attention, you decide to call him a possible doper. Nice. Is it merely ignorance of his qualities? Or is it his foreignness? His Colombian pedigree? His facial features, which I assume are typically Colombian Mestizo features? His upbringing in rural Boyaca, a mountainous dreamscape hidden high up in the Andes? Is that nowhere? If so, I wouldn't mind getting on the road to nowhere.

I'm going to assume the best: that Schlanger and Gogulski merely forgot to do their homework. If I were to stoop to their level I might say something like this:

Racism has been a big part of western culture, so it's only fair to say that nobody gets the benefit of the doubt anymore, and when you have a surprising statement like this from an announcer like Schlanger who comes out of nowhere with these charges, I think it's only fair to ask the question.

Or this:

It's an ugly thing to think about, it's something I hope doesn't exist with Gogulski, but this was an accusation that nobody could have expected. Now to his credit, we've seen him analyzing the race. We've seen him talking about the riders. You put that together into his statement on Quintana... it makes you wonder. It makes you ask the question, and I certainly hope he isn't racist.

But I won't. I will take the high road and say that their ignorance is limited to the athletic qualities under consideration. Here's the evidence they didn't bother looking up.

  • Quintana is a winner. He won the 2012 Vuelta a Murcia last March. He won the cat-2.1 Route du Sud later that summer with a stage victory in the Haute Pyrenees, over a largely world tour-level field. He helped his team win the Vuelta a Espana TTT. He won the Giro dell'Emilia in October, a month after completing his first grand tour. Pretty nice for a 22-year-old on a loaded team.
  • Quintana picked things up again quickly this spring with a stage win and 4th overall in the Volta a Catalunya. Everything about his record, including crushing the 2010 Tour de l'Avenir by 1.44 over a not-so-out-of-nowhere Andrew Talansky, screams "elite talent." That he's delivering on the big stage screams "maturity" as well.
  • Quintana is a decent cronoman, possibly more than decent. There are some forgettable results, as is typical of a young rider whose job is often to help his team and not go for a result in the time trials -- especially in, say, the Vuelta a Espana, where he needs to conserve every ounce of strength he has. But still, exactly four weeks prior to the "out of nowhere" time trial result Quintana finished third on the Col d'Eze ITT, in that never-heard-of-it race called Paris-Nice.
  • Two years ago, at age 21, Quintana faced off against Richie Porte in a flat ITT at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon. Porte won the stage, but Quintana, who then truly was from out of nowhere racing in his Colombia es Pasion kit, finished 14th, 43" behind Porte. And a mere 7" behind Chris Froome. [Actually Alberto Contador won the stage, one second ahead of Porte, but the victory was later expunged.] Oh, and remember how we were all talking about Talansky's abilities in the time trial as the basis for his grand tour future? Quintana crushed him by 47 seconds in that 2010 Avenir ITT.

What's so maddening about this whole affair, and makes you wonder whether Schlanger and Gogulski really did lose their fucking minds, is that Gogulski practically explains Quintana's success, a nanosecond before calling him a possible doper. He had been climbing well, and more importantly on this day, descending well. Yes, it was a time trial, and yes, if you closed your eyes and had people read back the distance and the times to you with no more information, you would wonder what went wrong for Richie Porte.

But if you actually watched the thing, to say nothing of if you called the race for a major cycling network, you might have noticed the horrendous weather. You might have seen guys taking it a little carefully in the corners. You might have surmised that the 12% climb and the subsequent descent, along with the other undulations, could come into play more significantly than expected in better weather, since the pure crono guys lost their competitive advantage in the slop while the guys who could climb and descend retained theirs. You might have concluded that a guy who can climb and descend, who's on excellent form, and who was never a bad time trialler to begin with, could do well on the day. And still, they went there.

"It's only fair to ask the question..."

Look, I get that people go there. I get that we've all been through a lot of fan-level disappointment over the last decade or two. I get that every time a guy does something we haven't seen before, people ask this question. Success = suspicion. [This is especially true when an older rider suddenly comes good, not an emerging young talent like Quintana.] Gogulski and Schlanger know all this. But you'd think guys who hang around cyclists would know the difference between fan-level musings and a journalist's duty of fairness to the cyclists. We fans are entitled to our private suspicions, at a minimum. Schlanger and Gogulski, as I hope they've discovered by now, are NOT entitled to voice all their little unfounded suspicions out loud.

The twin forces of journalism ethics and libel laws make it quite clear that people in the media do NOT get to label this kid a possible doper on the basis of a surprise result. Journalism standards require a foundation for such charges -- evidence, even hearsay, but preferably something concrete and the more corroboration, the better. Libel law says people (media or otherwise) don't get to express made-up shit in public if it will damage someone. By departing from journalistic standards, making shit up about Quintana, and then broadcasting it to dozens thousands of viewers, they have almost certainly damaged his career -- I say almost because Schlanger and Gogulski are somewhat likely to be dismissed by the international cycling fanhood as buffoons, leaving Quintana's reputation intact.

What's craziest of all is not the legal exposure but the reckless disregard for the sport. A cyclist -- every cyclist -- is someone who has put in thousands upon thousands of hours of ridiculous suffering to achieve their place in sport, after s/he has ditched college and maybe even high school, has limited (for now) his/her career choices to being a cyclist or doing something else in cycling... all for the love of the feeling you get when you can make a bike go fast. Obviously the sport and the associated money has corrupted a large number of these people, but until you have at least some shred of damaging information about a particular person, casually labeling them a possible doper is trashing all of the years of work they've put in. You can't just go ahead and do that for the hell of it, not on cable TV. You just can't. To an innocent cyclist, and there are still quite a lot of those, it's a monstrous, reckless thing to do.

I'm not advocating for the nuclear option. I don't want Gogulski and Schlanger canned and I am not calling for Movistar to lawyer up. Without knowing them personally, I can't say whether they're a plague on humanity or just a couple guys trying to fill up the space of a broadcast. I don't want Universal Sports to stop covering cycling. But I am demanding that the announcers and the network apologize in person to Quintana and his manager Eusebio Unzue, to a representative of Colombian Cycling, and to the public at large for crossing stomping all over this ethical line. I love watching Quintana, love watching the youth movement in cycling, love the internationalization and the return of the Colombian superclimbers. I respect what it takes for these guys to get into the game. And if the people responsible for covering the sport can't do the same, I'm sure there are plenty of young journalists and broadcasters who can, and who are ready and waiting to step in.