The Great Showdown

On July 1, 2010, the 2010 Tour de France looked as if it would be one of the most competitive editions of the race in its history. Rarely has a Grand Tour had so much talent show up with winning in mind. It was as if the six best teams in the NFL took the field for the Superbowl.

This was a Tour whose closest parallel was perhaps the 1989 edition, where three former winners—Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Greg LeMond—took the start and were ultimately the race’s greatest protagonists. This year’s race also had three former winners toe the start line—Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. Nearly as important is the fact it also had an amazing six former podium finishers—Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Alexander Vinokourov—at the start, plus Denis Menchov, a three-time Grand Tour winner in his own right. It was to be The Great Showdown.

The point of a Grand Tour, of course, is to see who cracks, which riders fail under pressure, but even more importantly, which riders rise to the occasion and surprise themselves, their teams and the fans. With a field gushing talent and experience like an out-of-control well in the Gulf of Mexico, no one really thought there would be room for any insurgent talents, but the prospect that one of the former top-10s, such as Frank Schleck, Michael Rogers or Bradley Wiggins capturing a podium spot seemed less science fiction than the impossibility of sealing off that aforementioned well.

But here we are, nine stages into The Great Showdown and what do we have? A race of two. That is, the race will come down to Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck provided there are no race-ending crashes or other stunning tragedies that befall either rider. That said, the way this race is going, I am willing to accept the possibility that someone other than either of these two riders could win. This race has had that much bad luck.

Lance Armstrong’s good fortune seems at an end. I’ll say more on that in another post.  Garmin-Transitions lost Christian Vande Velde in a crash and it’s odd to think he isn’t the only rider on that team nursing broken bones. Frank Schleck was rumored to be even stronger than brother Andy this year. And then there was Cadel Evans’ detonation. Even though this isn’t the first time he has choked under pressure, his eight-minute slide down the mountain and the standings must have caused a few jaws to hang open, mine among them.

Speaking of surprises, what of Team Astana? Last winter I wrote of the skeleton crew that had been hired just to give them enough riders to qualify for the ProTour. I was critical of the team and dinged the formation for not having the climbers necessary to defend Contador when he would most need it. Tonight’s meal will include a serving of my words.

What should we make of Alexander Vinokourov’s performance so far? The great fear was that he would go rogue and ride for himself and challenge Contador’s leadership. His performance, while good, has been erratic enough that I can’t say whether he has been riding for himself or not. There certainly have been times when his riding hasn’t seemed to be for the benefit of Contador, but then, in this race anything seems possible.

It is with the impossible in mind that arrive at Samuel Sanchez. Two podium finishes at the Vuelta are maybe on a par with a top-10 at the Tour de France, so almost no one seriously considered this guy to be a podium threat. Sure, he is the leader of Euskaltel-Euskadi, which is something like being a favorite if for no reason other than he is protected (in theory) by eight guys. But a real contender?

I’m beginning to think the battle for the last step of the podium is between Sanchez, Menchov, Gesink and Leipheimer. I think Van Den Broeck will crack, as will Basso, late in the Pyrenees. The fact that there is but one remaining time trial and it is at the end of the race will threaten a GC shuffle, and while we think the likely beneficiaries would be Contador, Menchov and Leipheimer, I refuse to bet. Anything seems possible right now.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Eatiusbirdius

    Good post Padraig. I was thinking along the same lines this afternoon: down to 2 and half the tour to go. Hmmm…kind of a bummer. Not that the Tour necessarily needs fixing, but if it did, here’s my proposal to the ASO (this is a little discussion we started having over at Velocast forums take out two sprint stages and replace them with a pave stage in the first week AND the 3rd week. Just think of the possibilities! Not only for the Tour but the Classics as well. Check out my link above for more details (hopefully it’s not in bad taste to point to their forums for the detail…if it is, my utmost apologies in advance and let me know and I’ll delete it immediately!)

  2. Touriste-Routier

    Vino has been riding very aggressively, but this is not necessarily against the interests of Contador. In fact, the situation is quite to the contrary.

    Vino is placed high enough on GC that each of his attacks requires a reaction from those behind, which inevitably forces someone to chase, sheds some threatening riders off the back, and allows Contador to follow wheels for a while.

    While we don’t know whether he has malevolent motives or not, these are very sound team tactics nonetheless.

  3. James

    I was thinking of all the pre-race hype of the “Great Radio Shack squad”. They were supposed to be so good that the other teams would dry up and blow away in their presence! Gee, I guess that myth got shot down quickly! How many team-mates did Levi have up the Madeleine? How many did Contador have? Who would you have in your corner right now, the much vaunted Popovych or the unknown Daniel Navarro? Radio Shack looked great on paper…only problem, paper doesn’t win races! Bruyneels “genius” looks a little pale right now. Perhaps he stayed with the wrong leader and team!

    Do you all think that Contador worked out a deal with Caisse d’ Epargne? It seems rather obvious to me. Gutierez give a bottle to Contador while Contador is chasing his boss. LL Sanchez doesn’t take any pulls in the breakaway the last 7 kilometers in a race that I thought he could have easily won in one of his patented fliers. I think Alberto bought an insurance policy because he wasn’t too sure about the strength of his team or the trustworthiness of Vinokourov. Just saying…

    Enjoy the rest of the race! I think it has been great!

  4. sophrosune

    @James That’s an interesting theory, but it’s not clear what you’re proposing exactly. Are you saying that Caisse d’Epargne accepted cash from Contador to help him in the race, that’s the insurance policy? I think you have to really go with the much more plausible scenario that Gutierez and Contador are friends and LL Sanchez was just toast as he said after the finish and didn’t have the energy to force the pace anymore.

    I have been one of those who always argued that RadioShack’s vaunted team was way over rated. They are pretty long in the tooth and with the exception of Brajkovic’s Dauphine and Horner’s Pays de Basque they have not really been exceptional (good reason to not get invited to the Vuelta). Plus there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians for a well-sorted team.

    Remember also that most of the guys on Astana were already there (Tiralongo and De la Fuente be notable addtions). Bruyneel, the great genius for talent and tactics, just didn’t use them in the TdF, the only race that he really cares about.

    Now some may be disappointed that it’s just a two man race, but not me. To me it’s spellbinding. I think common wisdom is that Contador beat Schleck by 1:45 in last year’s shorter TT and so Schleck’s current 41 second advantage need only be maintained by Contador and then the race will be his. But I am not so sure. I think Schleck has improved his TT skills and I don’t think Contador has properly adjusted to the Specialized TT bike (have you seen the way he has pushed the seat way forward on the Specialized. He never did that with his Trek bikes).

    I had rather unimaginatively predicted on this site back in June that the podium would be Contador, Schleck and Evans. I am sorry that Evans’ injury has kept him from performing at his highest level, so I am going to unimaginatively predict now Contador, Schleck and Samuel Sanchez.

  5. todd k

    Not to be a Debbie downer, but I’m just not feeling it this year. Given the energy employed to hype the event, given the big names lined up to participate in the event, and given the general culture that desires the Tour epitomize pro cycling, the Tour is often vulnerable to under deliver from my vantage point.

    Half way through the Tour we are down to two guys battling for the GC even though we have a slew of former winners and podium finishers in the peloton. If the race were to unfold as folks suggest with Contador marking Schleck until the time trial, the Tour in general would not be terribly dramatic save for the time trial itself. Such an unfolding would equate to a week of rather predictable racing (Astana setting a brutal pace until Schleck and Contador launch off on their own at some point in time with both marking each other, but neither really gapping the other.) And that is the conservative best case, as if one were to significantly gap the other or one has a bad day, or tragically suffer an injury the GC drama suddenly vaporizes…

    IF we are lucky (and hopefully we are) we may have some punch and counter punch stage to stage between Contador and Schleck and they see saw the lead day to day over the Pyrenees, but the rhetoric all are providing doesn’t give me a lot of hope that this is tactically how the combatants are going to race. The tour seems to bring out rather conservative racing tactics these days when it comes to the GC. (Almost as though folks race to not lose it which happens to be why I think folks like Leiphemer never really go out on a limb.)

    I suppose that there is always the outside chance that some one pulls off something miraculous to pull themselves back into contention… but these days that type of miracle would be denigrated as suspicious. (And who could blame anyone for such a thought?)

    Add to this the lack of action on the sprinting side (Cavendish took a while to get a win, Farrar has been a no show with his injury) and I am finding that the action day to day is ok, but not as riveting as it reads on paper prior to the start of the event.

    Funny you mention it Eatiusbirdius, I was thinking much the same thing by running the cobbles mid race to advance the unpredictability forward a bit, such a decision could allow teams that have a bad day in the mountains the opportunity to recoup the difference though roads that require different tactics than does the standard alpine mountain stage require. While the current tour format generally produces the strongest as the winner, an occasional variation from the theme could help keep things interesting year over year. And as Armstrong and Evans have demonstrated, Pave’ as the prime culprit in taking out contenders is a bit over blown as they suffered injuries on “safer” roads.

    Just to call out, I’m not saying the tour “sucks’. Just that it is some what underwhelming given the length of the even and the attention it gets.

    1. Author

      Evans’ broken elbow is a rotten turn of events. That detail hadn’t come out as I was writing; I knew his arm was injured, but they’d not yet said it was broken.

      Regarding Radio Shack, while it’s true they have’t been dominant in the way US Postal was (post 2000), they’ve been at the top of the teams’ classification, so by at least one objective measure they are truly riding well. Their non-selection for the Vuelta was never justified on sporting grounds; going into the Tour they were the 8th ranked team in the world and two of the Spanish teams selected to ride the Vuelta have no UCI points at all and are unranked as a result.

      That speaks to the curiosity regarding Contador’s relationship with the Caisse d’Epargne riders. There’s a long history of Spanish riders working together. Robert Millar’s loss in the Vuelta is a rather dark manifestation of their tight relationship, but I think in general the way the riders place nation before team is somewhat enviable. The Spanish riders look out for each other.

      I’ve been asked any number of times what I think of the stage 3 cobbles. While I can accept Armstrong’s time loss due to a puncture, it has been tougher to accept Frank Schleck’s broken collarbone. I think any challenge that hurt the performance of all of the GC riders would be wrong, but given that three of the favorites came through well, it’s an acceptable challenge.

      I do rue the loss of the wide-open battle between so many capable riders, but the battle between Schleck and Contador has plenty to keep me interested for another 10 days.

  6. Lachlan

    seems a great tour to me.
    prologue, predicatble power + some surprises. Great.
    Cobbles, with surprises. Great.
    Yellow all ove the shop. Great.
    Sprinters teams struggling to dominate one over another. Great
    Andy vs contador. Great. Despite no time gaps their combined ride over the Madeleine and catching the lead group was a great stage to watch.

    But do hope it turns into a 1989 back and forth. Not just 2-up between the two until the final TT… we’ll see!

  7. cboas

    I agree with James. AC has been know to conspire with the other Spaniards on Cd’E several times. Not with money, but with the pride of Spain. LLS grew up racing with AC and has beaten him on a few occasions. They are old compadres, as with Guttierez.

    Just look back to when Astana was hemmoraging riders in the RadioShack team formation and AC wanted out of his contract. First team to court him was Cd’E. He has many pals on that squad and they are more than willing to put themselves on the line for AC if he is up against a northern euro like Schleck.

    The bottom line is everyone think AC is weaker this year becuase of team makeup and overall fitness. I don’t buy it. He has two squads working for him and he is playing with AS until the Pyranees and TT.

    This race is won after stage 21, not 9.

  8. sophrosune

    I agree, Robot, it’s in the tradition of great races (Fignon vs. LeMond, Anquetil vs. Poulidor). I don’t know why a race that it is likely to be decided in the final time trial is not exciting, but I suppose if your main interest is seeing Armstrong in the mix, you might find it dull.

  9. Touriste-Routier

    A 2-man race can either be exciting or boring, depending on the riders. If they take it to each other day after day, with a lot of attacks, it is exciting, especially if the lead changes a few times. If they just mark each other, and leave it for the final TT, that is rather boring.

    Of course there are lots of other things going on in addition to the GC battle; day-to-day, these can make up for a boring 2-man GC competition.

  10. todd k

    I concur with Touriste-Routier’s thoughts regarding the 2 man race. I’m hoping for the attacks. That would certainly go a long way towards changing my opinion.

    On further reflection, I am likely also more “blah” on this year’s Tour because I simply got my fill at the Giro. I really liked the Giro this year.

  11. cthulhu

    I, too , must concur. So far Le Tour is great. Everyday there is something about to talk, to discuss, something worth watching. Maybe yesterday’s stage was a bit bland, only real topic to talk about, why were the French riders so passive and unmotivated. But today we got Mark Renshaw headbutting in best Zinedine Zidan style and his disqualification. Also the GC is far from decided. True Contador needs just to hang on but Ändy knows that. So attacks are ensured. And while AC is the better in the time trial, Ändy did improve a bit so last year’s stats might be not that much significant.

    About Caisse d’Epargne helping AC. Well, both teams are Spanish. Yes, I know Astana is the capitol of Kazakhstan and now all the sponsors are, but it was once ONCE and Liberty-Seguros and most of the staff and riders still are Spanish. And while Caisse d’Epargne is a French bank the team was once Banesto and Iles Baleares and the same is true for them. They all know each other and have helped each other on several occasions even more than riders from different teams usually do. But to pour in some oil into the fire of speculations, Caisse d’Epargne’s sponsorship ends this year and Alonso, the Formula 1 pilot, was thinking about owning his own cycling team. And since he is a big buddy with AC. So we have a rich guy with superb sponsor connections and interest in cycling, a team with no (main) sponsor for the next year and a top level rider without contract for the next year and all are Spanish….

  12. tjh

    I think Cadel’s elbow offered a convenient excuse. He fractured it early in the stage before the rest day and still rode strong, taking the yellow. On the day he cracked, he still descended like rocket. I say he choked.

    1. Author

      Agreed: a two-man showdown could be awful, but watching that match sprint on the Madeleine was utterly thrilling. I was on the edge of my seat. It was insane, but thrilling racing.

  13. Robot

    The way those two go in the mountains, dropping the rest of the big guys like Tyson in his prime, even if they just try to mark each other I’m going to enjoy it. Remember Menchov marking DiLuca throughout the end of the 2009 Giro, DiLuca attacking, Menchov responding, on and on and on. Thrilling.

    Do you think Bjarne Riis doesn’t have some crazy ass strategy planned? Will Bontempi/Martinelli be able to respond?

    And without Renshaw in the mix, don’t the sprints get more interesting too?

  14. erik

    Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s ironic that Lance’s best chance for post-retirement podium was last year, when he was teammates with Contador. With the overwhelming race favorite on the same team, Astana had all the cards. Not only could they control the race, they could manage the pace for the aging Armstrong. Plus, the infighting with Contador ratcheted up his competitiveness to a place he’d never been before, surely not during his 7 successful Tours.

    For Armstrong, ’09 could have been much different. A side effect of Astana’s controlled pace making was that Bradley Wiggins became a revelation.

    Eliminate Lance’s crashes, and he still wouldn’t have been in contention. Schleck and Contador are on another planet.

    Also, there’s something to be said about team chemistry. SaxoBank has it: it’s obvious for all to see. That’s a tight-knit team that exudes confidence and optimism, pride in what they’re doing.

    RS doesn’t. You can see it in the way they talk in post-stage interviews. They’re lost. This mix of riders doesn’t click. Many are surprised that Leipheimer was a virtual non-factor. Kloden was a less than super domestique. Jani was leashed and made to work for Armstrong. The only person who seemed self-motivated was Horner, and he rode his bike apart for a lost cause.

    Lance is inspirational to many people, but for whatever reason, he wasn’t so inspiring for his team. The last half-dozen stages were a free for all, and the first dozen, including stage 3, were a mishmash.

    Where does Radio Shack go from here?

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