Quelle Surprise

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

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13 comments

  1. MattyVT

    It would appear that Contador achieved the rare feat of out-preparing Lance at the Tour with his well-publicized cobblestone recon with Peter Van Petegem.

    Harkening back to your earlier post, Padraig, do cobblestones make a Tour Grand or grotesque? I’d say they’ve certainly made it interesting, but delicate or crash-prone GC riders often run into trouble on the flat early stages. It didn’t take pave to knock out Vande Velde.

  2. scott

    Lots of talk about Cancellara being a class act and gentleman after Stage 2. Now, I like Cancellara and all, but do different rules apply on the pave’? The Yellow Jersey is dropped due to punctures but Cancellara is not criticized for failing to show the usual respect for the jersey? Indeed, Cancellara himself regained the jersey by riding away from Chavanel. So, had Andy Schleck been in the lead group in Stage 2 after the Stockeau with other GC contenders on the ground behind him, would Cancellara would have buried himself to put time in on them and keep the jersey? I would say the answer is categorically “yes.” So much for it being a gentleman’s sport.

    http://sports.espn.go.com/oly/tdf2005/news/story?id=2101411

  3. Souleur

    To say as you well did Padraig, its the best of times and the worst of times is correct. There is a good deal of mixed feelings in the peloton right now.

    I for one was glad to see a day of pave’ thrown in the mix for the Tour. Lets say it the way it is…tour riders whether it is the Giro, the Tour or the Vuelta will piss and moan about the route on its hardest days. This is common to lesser riders too. Around here, if its a stinkin pothole on a course, racers moan about it. If its undue hills, they moan about it. If its rain, they moan. And the PRO’s have a few that moan about a narrow road, a particular climb, a dicey finish, and as we have here…pave’.

    Its most certianly not unique to this race neither. Riders have bemoaned the route ever since Henry Desgrange laid out the first ones so many years ago. They even accused him of trying to kill them on some days.

    The fact is, it is more interesting laying it out into Belgium and north for a few days and that is what it is. Now they have a little respite as it heads south into France and the Pyrenees. Tourmalet is looming and that is a very important day.

    And in the end, when they make the last loop around the Champs-Elysees they will look back at this most difficult Tour and rest their laurels on the accomplishment of July.

  4. Dave 1949

    I think this might be the best thing to happen to Andy. He and the team can now race to place him instead of trying to get 2 riders on the podium. I thought last year there were times he could have done better but wanted to stay and help his brother.

  5. Big Mikey

    Interesting how, after 8 years of nearly impeccable luck on his side, LA suffered a major piece of bad luck in a flat in the last 20k of yesterday’s stage. Every year, contenders are lost b/c of bad luck, but Lance seemed immune to it throughout his run.

    But still the question, where were his RS teammates? Kloden, Levi, Horner? None of those guys were in the front group? Not impressive work from (on paper) the strongest team in the race.

  6. Robot

    @Dave 1949 – This is a good point. The Schleck’s symbiosis is both their strength AND their weakness. It’s fun to watch them take turns attacking in the mountains, but sometimes an excess of fraternal fealty seems to cost them valuable seconds. I don’t think it would have put Andy on the top step last year, but you make a very good point.

  7. Souleur

    @dave: good point, plus Andy will have impetus to ride ‘for’ his big brother Frank now in a spiritual sense, and that will be significant when he is in pain to be able to ride for something bigger than oneself. Lance has.

  8. Alex

    The big deal that was made from the inclusion of the cobbles and “potentialy threatening” stages led me to think that unlike the Giro, the Tour de France is becoming more and more specialized.

    The race for GC is the focus here, but at what extent this is happening vis-a-vis the other races-within-the-races? There seem to have less and less space for risk, as riders (or careers) and teams become more and more “commodities” rather than roadie tough men they used to be not long ago. Everything now has to take into account the sponsors, the fans, the racers, the TV, IMHO sometimes at the expense of the race action.

    I can understand the peloton taking care of their collective and even individual safety, but I´m under the impression that this only happen (or happens with more accent) at the Tour. And I´m not sure if that´s good or bad for the sport, but it coincides with the rise in appreciation for more old-school racing such as the Giro or the Classics.

    Or maybe it´s just me.

  9. dacrizzow

    amazing stage! saxo bank, yeah! astana, yeah! radio shack,no. saxo and astana had skilled, aggressive guys to lead their leaders to safety. who did lance have? levi? give me a break. lance ended up dumping his dead weight teamates and going it alone. lance is suffering from the elvis effect. he surrounds himself with a bunch of yesmen who worry more about their paycheck and telling him what he wants to hear as opposed to what he needs to hear. what he needs to hear is that although a very competitive member of the peloton, he’s been away too long to beat this new generation. has been lead into a false sense of self. so what if he won leadville. focused a whole year to finally beat another long retired pro.

  10. Touriste-Routier

    While I don’t think anyone would have “predicted” Cancellara regaining the Maillot Jaune, that really wasn’t athe “surprise” per se. Everyone predicted that he would do well on this stage, if given free reign, and the possibility of large time gains were always on the horizon.

    The open question was how much sheparding that he would have to do. Thus the surprises were a) Chavanel losing so much time on a course where he predictably would have fared better, but more importantly, Andy Schleck hanging tough with Cancellara. Looks like Saxo got their cake and got to eat it too, as He had both options all in one.

    While he was certainly motivated to keep driving the pace, not only to regain the jersey, but to help Andy claw back time on GC, you have to wonder if the fianle was also somewhat of a “gift” or payback to Hushcvd for the stage 2 debacle, as there was no push to make Thor take the lead at any point, and with Andy in tow, Spartacus didn’t attempt to free his chariot from the lead group in the final few Ks to go for a stage win, which certainly would have been a possibility.

    I think this stage (as well as what transpired on stage 2) are clear indications of team unity, and focus on their primary goal of going after GC.

    It was a great stage, even with Frank’s unfortunate departure.

  11. Robot

    @Touriste-Routier – What’s going on with Saxo Bank is fascination. On the one hand, coming into the race, we hear all these things about the Schlecks starting a new team, Kim Anderson leaving to direct that team, Cancellara potentially joining BMC, and then Riis struggling to find a sponsor. It looked like a complete implosion.

    And yet, no other team has seemed so together in the race thus far. Is it a parting gift to Bjarne or are they just this talented? Or both?

  12. Alex

    IMHO they´re talented AND professional. They´re young and ambitious so they´re driving it in their own interest.

  13. Touriste-Routier

    Robot, I agree with Alex; talented and pro.

    Rumors are rumors, next year is next year, but Le Tour is now. They are each hired to do a job, they are motivated to succeed, and they have the talent to back it up. Saxo/CSC have always been the standard bearer for unity.

    And consider this, if Riis fails to sign a new sponsor, they are all looking for jobs. Even if the Schlecks have a new team, and Cancellara has lots of offers, don’t you think that one of them will be from Luxembourg? And while I am speculating, could there not be a reconciliation between Riis & Andersen, and/or the new team be a new partnership between Riis & the Schlecks, where they keep much of their successful and happy family together?

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