It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
I’m not apologizing to Dickens, not after the last two days of racing. He couldn’t have seen this coming.
For the Schleck brothers and Team Saxo Bank the Dickens quote sums up the last two days in a few different ways.
Yesterday’s stage neutralization preserved Saxo Bank’s 1-2 GC punch. Lucky thing for them. So yes, they did benefit twice as much as other teams, after all, Lance Armstrong is the only GC threat Radio Shack is advertising; same for Alberto Contador at Astana.
But to preserve the Schlecks, Fabian Cancellara had to surrender the maillot jaune. History shows us no one does that happily, readily and rarely willingly. Established professional or not, surrendering the yellow jersey when you have good legs has got to hurt. It just hast to.
Less than 24 hours later Frank Schleck goes down on the pavé and breaks his collarbone. If teammate Jens Voigt’s reaction is any indication, Saxo Bank is devastated to lose its GC duo: “It was a daft decision to include this stage in the Tour. For months, we’ve said, people, this is too much of a spectacle, this is too dangerous, did they listen to us? No. And now Frankie has a broken collarbone. This is the last straw. I’m so disappointed.”
For most teams, securing the yellow jersey—yet again—could overcome the shock of losing almost any rider. Given the way they’ve ridden for the last ten years, this is doubly true for any French team.
What this needs is a reduction sauce: During stage 2, Team Saxo Bank surrendered the yellow jersey but managed to preserve the GC hopes for both Schlecks. In stage 3, Team Saxo Bank regained the yellow jersey—an event almost no one would have dared predict—but lost one of its most important GC riders.
We expect that the unexpected will take place in racing, that some riders will fall victim circumstances and by the time the race’s most strategic stages unfold the list of front runners might have changed somewhat; still it’s unfortunate to lose a rider due to a crash on cobblestone. To the degree that the cobblestones are meant to be a strategic focal point the intent is to force racers to be vigilant and stay up front, not take them out in crashes, though we understand that possibility is ever there.
Schleck’s departure and Cancellara’s regaining the yellow jersey may have been unexpected, but they weren’t the stage’s only surprises. To see Alberto Contador ride so well on the pavé was a genuine surprise, especially the way he gained time on his biggest rival, Lance Armstrong, who flatted on the cobbles.
In a day full of surprising turns, the one that most surprises me is Andy Schleck’s ride in hanging onto teammate Cancellara’s group as he drilled it to the finish. It’s hard for anyone to claim that they anticipated Cancellara regainin the yellow jersey, harder still to claim they could anticipate pavé virgin Contador’s good ride or Armstrong’s bad luck. However, almost no one would have been willing to bet that injured Andy Schleck would have gained time on the other favorites on a stage that was just flat but containing sections of road a climber just isn’t meant for.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
One of cycling’s central tenets is that it is a gentlemens’ sport. Not that it is a sport plied by well-heeled graduates of the English public schools, but rather that even in sport we are meant to rise above the most base animal instincts that guide our sense of survival and success.
As racers, we are taught not to attack in the feed zone. Periodically, some bastard does it, and in my experience, the group’s opinion of that rider is never quite the same afterward. Similarly, we’re taught not to attack following a crash or when other riders need a nature break. All this goes doubly during stage races and trebly if it involves the race leader.
It’s fair to say that most cycling fans consider Fabian Cancellara the most unfairly persecuted rider in cycling. As the one rider so far accused of “motorized doping”—perhaps the silliest possible name to describe the silliest possible idea in cycling currently—Cancellara’s remarkable wins at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix have been surreally—and unfairly—denigrated thanks to Italian TV commentator Davide Cassani.
One wonders if Cassani is on the payroll of an e-bike company.
In stage 2, following a crash that decked almost every favorite, Cancellara went to race official Jean-Francois Pescheux and announced that the riders had elected not to sprint the finish.
It would be easy to be cynical and say that Cancellara was simply acting in his team co-leaders’ best interests. The Schleck brothers had been gapped off the yellow jersey group and were chasing to rejoin and by shutting down the race, the Schlecks were able to rejoin the lead group. However, Cancellara was in the yellow jersey and no one gives up the jersey out of a need to be decent. Well, amost no one.
Cancellara did exactly that.
“It was the right thing to do to wait so everybody comes together to the finish line together,” Cancellara told the AFP.
“When you have everybody on the ground and people five minutes behind because they can’t find their bike then it’s only normal.
“I think fairness comes before being selfish.”
The most significant victory of the Tour de France may already have been decided. The moral victory has already gone to Cancellara. After all, we should remember a man who says, “There’s other things to think about than the yellow jersey.”
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Yesterday RKP celebrated its one-year anniversary. Your readership has made the last year possible. You’ve given us the chance to follow stories and explore perspectives that you won’t find at the other sites or magazines, which, for us, has meant getting to write content we wouldn’t have a chance to submit elsewhere.
In addition to the acceptance you’ve given the blog, the industry’s reception has been terrific as well. From the products we’ve been asked to review to the advertisers who need to be in front of you, we’ve been welcomed everywhere we go.
A brief note on my whereabouts for the last two weeks: I just finished a book on road cycling for new riders called Ride Like a Pro! Yesterday, I turned in the finished manuscript to my publisher, Menasha Ridge Press. I’ve no idea how many pages it will be, but I do know that we turned in 402 images. I’d say my relief is on the order of giving birth, but my wife would slap me; let’s just say this morning I took my first deep breath in months. Watch for it next spring.
And now, a year later, we’re at the start of the Tour de France yet again. Summer is ON. Has a more exciting Tour ever loomed? I don’t recall one. Traditionally, when the race has been called “wide open” the reason has been due to absences—missing former champions. However, this year is different.
The list of truly great riders capable of battling to victory is stunning for its depth. We have former champions Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, and all those who were counting Armstrong out in May are now curiously silent. Both Frank and Andy Schleck look capable of victory. And then there’s Cadel Evans. Evans may not have the strongest team at the Tour, but there is no question that he is the leader of a team and that he has full confidence from management.
Can Wiggins replicate his form from last year? The world is full of riders who rode to fourth once, sometimes twice, but never higher. Let’s watch and wait.
What of Sastre? No matter how likable and classy he is, he doesn’t seem to have shown the form necessary to be called a favorite.
It’s been almost 20 years since a rider took the Giro/Tour double and Miguel Indurain was in his prime. Can the same really be said of Basso?
We’re told this will be Lance Armstrong’s final Tour de France. We’ve every reason to take him at his word. Many will be relieved to see his departure. I, for one, won’t be. While I’m no fanboy, I am a fan. Lance has been a fascinating, surprising figure in cycling and his insights into cycling, given in interviews have been fun to digest. The reign of Armstrong has been no cleaner than the reign of Indurain, but the interviews have been far more enjoyable.
The day following a fun birthday can be something of a let down. With the whole of the Tour de France ahead of us, it’s going to be a party every day. Thanks for reading.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Christmas Eve and all through Rotterdam, most creature are stirring, riders, sporting directors, mechanics, soigneurs, journalists and fans. And old Chris Prudhomme, with his staff in the thousands, is just settling in for three weeks of chaos. The cobbles are dusty, and the Alps, they are high, the Pyrenees waiting to make riders cry. And all over the planet, folks like you and me, are drooling in wonder at the spectacle to be.
Yeah. Sorry about that. How else to quantify the anticipation and expectation we feel on this last day before the Grand Depart? This race we’ve talked about nearly every day since the last version ended is finally upon us again.
The story lines are legion already. Lance v. Alberto, whether you believe there’s even a contest there, no one will stop talking about it, especially on American television. The Schlecks and Saxo Bank seem to be breaking up, but in the meantime, they may have the strongest team with which to attack the general classification. Mark Cavendish v Thor Hushovd is on again, but we have to wonder if Tyler Farrar will crash their little party. And what of the Italians? BMC and Cadel Evans? Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky?
Do I dare even mention the white elephant in the room, Floyd Landis?
We have argued here, in the past, that the Tour de France is the biggest bike race in the world, arguably the biggest sporting event, because it tells the best stories. No other event cultivates and propagates its history so effectively, and so no other race captures our attention so completely.
Just in enumerating the stories already simmering in advance of the Prologue, we can see some of what the 2010 Tour de France will be. But, with history as our guide, we also know that it will be all of that and more.
This week’s Group Ride is about stories. What do you think the most compelling plot line of the 2010 Grand Boucle will be? Is it something already on our minds, or is it a thing that will come to light as the race goes on? Will it be the end of a veteran, or the emergence of a new star? Will it be the racing, or the personal squabbles that invariably go along with it.
Think of this as our prologue. Three weeks to go.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In anticipation of the the Grand Depart of the Grande Boucle, and in the waning slip stream of the best Giro d’ Italia in many years, it bears asking what elements make up a grand Grand Tour. The game pieces, climbs, time trials, sprints, etc., are fairly familiar, call them the primary colors, but the quality of the thing is in the shading, the balance and the nuance with which they’re applied, no?
Let’s look at them:
1) Climbs – Who doesn’t love a mountain top finish? OK, sprinters aren’t as fond as you and I are, but they have their laughing group and their green jersey. In terms of drama, few elements of a Grand Tour yield quite the entertainment value of the peloton exploding on a series of suicidal, up-hill switchbacks, the sort of climb that makes the motor in your car squeal and whine in complaint.
What is far less interesting is watching the peloton fracture on the incline and then come back together on a non-technical descent, leading to a bunch sprint in a little, gray village 30kms down the road. Those sorts of “mountain stages” serve only as punishment, a means of tiring the riders and teasing the fans. Mountain stages should end on summits.
As much as I love the summit finishes, to be fair to the sprinters,TT specialists and rouleurs , you can’t have too many of these. A sprinkling is best. Also, good to use ones with names like Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez, Peyresourde, Tourmalet, et. al. A mountain ought not be a subtle thing.
2) Time Trials - The race of truth. The race against the clock. Call it what you want, but it’s probably the best measure of a rider’s individual strength and technique. The thing about time trials is that they’re fairly boring to watch. How many skinsuit-clad cyclists can you watch rolling out of the start house before you get the point?
One. That’s how many.
Time trials are a good way to balance the climbs and sprints. If you have three serious mountain top finishes, you ought to have three serious time trials. I’d like to see a balance of stages that allows a rider like Fabian Cancellara to compete effectively with Alberto Contador.
2a) Team Time Trials – A fantastic spectacle of paceline precision, a good showcase for the sponsors, the colors and names splashed across that tight unit of pedal pushers, BUT TTTs distort the general classification in an unfair way, putting some riders on the back foot through no weakness of their own.
3) Sprints – Oh, the sound and the fury, carbon and rubber and flesh and bone, churning furiously over the asphalt, a writhing mess of calculated chaos, straining for that painted finish, bunch sprints are absolutely thrilling, except for when you see them day after day after day. More than three days of sprint finishes in a row will put most cycling fans to sleep, like learning to nap through thunder and lightning.
Has the green jersey lost its luster in recent years? Thor Hushovd won last year’s shirt while only taking one stage. It was a bravura performance that took full advantage of intermediate sprints, those ones that almost never get on a TV camera, but it lacked sex appeal.
Sprints are better when they’re varied, some with a long, straight run-in to the line, others with twisty, narrow approaches, even, maybe, some up a false flat. Just don’t make us watch them for a week straight.
4) Weather - When we say weather, what we really mean is wind. The flat stretches of Holland in the opening stages of the 2010 Tour give us the best opportunity to see the riders strung across the road struggling to close gaps, but wind can change the race at any moment, as can, to a lesser extent, rain.
The thing about weather is that it’s hard to legislate. Sure, you can send the peloton over normally wind swept plains, but nature is notoriously uncooperative. Still, dramatic weather makes for dramatic racing.
5) Gimmicks – Foreign prologues, cobbles, even team TTs, can all be thought of as gimmicks. Just be calling them gimmicks probably assigns some pejorative to these odd elements, and it probably shouldn’t. After all, next week’s Dutch Depart will, at the very least, yield the presence of Dutch podium girls.
Much has been made of the presence of cobbles in the 2010 race. Normally non-classic riders have altered their schedules to include some of the bumpy stuff. Reconnaissance has been done. If the cobbles don’t alter the race itself, they will certainly have altered the buildup.
Is it a good thing? Hard to say. To some extent it feels like cheating, the Tour copying from the Classics to score better on the test. Does it enhance the Tour or cheapen the Flandrian Classics? Yes. Maybe both.
The Outlook – Christian Prudhomme would do well to give us a Tour de France half as entertaining as Angelo Zomegnan’s 2010 Giro d’Italia. At the very least, he and his team have pulled out all the stops. There is, in the final math, an expectations-to-reality ratio that doesn’t favor the French race. And even a well-balanced Tour plan can be squandered by a cautious and lethargic peloton.
The modern fashion is to build a Tour for a climber who can ride against the clock. Time will tell, in this case, whether Prudomme has left enough in his race for the rest.