So Omega Pharma has announced it will merge with another team. L’Equipe is reporting that there will be no Belgian superteam merger with QuickStep. Rather, the merger is likely to take place with Dutch formation Vacansoleil.
Why no announcement has been forthcoming from Vacansoleil is curious. If the deal is done enough for Omega Pharma to announce that there will be a merger, one wonders why Vacansoleil needs to wait.
Regardless, the merger is unfortunate. Any team merger—such as this season’s merging of Garmin and Cervelo—invariably results in a game of musical chairs that leaves a number of people without seats. From riders to mechanics to soigneurs, there are always some good people who are left scrambling looking for paychecks when one formation ends, and that happens even if they don’t act like Trent Lowe.
The two best Belgian climbers in a generation (or two), Jelle Vanendert and Jurgen van den Broeck are said to be headed to the new Lotto formation, and that—quelle surprise (exclaimed with not even a hint of irony)—Philippe Gilbert is headed for BMC. That’s great for Gavin Chilcott, Jim Ochowicz and Andy Rihs, but I mean, dude.
I began today thinking that today’s FGR would speculate on just what formation would join forces with Omega Pharma, but with these latest revelations, the question has changed.
If you have Philippe Gilbert, who is unquestionably the finest one-day rider of this season, at your disposal, would anything short of your personal, professional and moral bankruptcy allow Gilbert to slip from your clutches? There’s no denying that Vanendert and van den Broeck are gifted climbers but nothing signs sponsors like a win, which is something Gilbert can do against anyone, any day.
And while we’re at it, you can’t help but wonder what else BMC has up their sleeve. Are BMCs selling that much faster than Cervelos that Rihs can fund a formation with some of the world’s top riders out of his pocket without suffering the same fate as the Canadian frame maker? Not to put too fine a point on it, but multiple sources told me that team nearly bankrupted the company. Do you think Rihs is really funding the team strictly out of BMC’s operations or is he feeding it with his own money?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I love feed zones. They are opportunities for riders to take refuge and stock. That is, they are a sort of mental landing in the stairway, a brief pause that allows a rider to tell himself no matter how things have been, they just got better. But because they are a chance to take stock, they can also be a point of reckoning, an accounting that reminds you there’s another lap (or two) to go. I’ve seen riders hit the feedzone and just pull over because they knew, they knew another lap wasn’t in the legs.
Standing in the feedzone presents a unique reversal of roles. Suddenly, the person on the side of the road is no longer just a spectator, that warm body is a kind of participant. From listening to what the riders are asking for to locating discarded bottles, filling them back up, taping gels to them or maybe adding a rider’s favorite drink mix, the role of feed angel can be pivotal in a race.
Watching the ballet of bike and feeder connect is a breathless eternity. Threading bikes, arms extended into peloton, pedal strokes that pause, start and pause again, that crashes aren’t an inevitable part of the routine seems to defy logic. And then there’s the mayhem that ensues if someone attacks in the feed zone.
But the feedzone attack is a move of desperation, without class and the equivalent of throwing the bus under the bus. Attack in the feedzone and your stock in friendship gets de-listed. You aren’t so much short on friends as replete with enemies. The only surer route to PNG status is to hook someone’s wheel at the front of the bunch and take down the whole group, and that is harder to do than keeping Lindsay Lohan in rehab.
However, no act in the feed zone is more necessary, better defines the need of the racer in a long race, illustrates the role team management and strategy can play than the hand-up. Anyone who has ever been subject to a hand-up from a newbie knows how they can go wrong. That stiff arm and talon clutch have seen more bottles knocked into the peloton than you could manage with a golf club and a driving range. Amazing how some people just don’t want to let go.
I love watching the hand-up by an experienced soigneur. To most of the world, they simply stick an arm out and the rider grabs the bottle. But run the coverage in slow motion and you notice how the arm makes a little arc in the milliseconds before the rider grabs the bottle. Magicians should move with such speed and subtlety.
At a long circuit race some years ago I bounced two bottles into weeds on successive laps. We were allowed to take feeds, but because most guys in the race didn’t have anyone to feed them, they were carrying a third bottle in their jerseys. Consequently, we weren’t slowing down in the feed. At 25 mph—the pace I slowed to try to get the feed—it’s difficult to grab a bottle, even in the best circumstances.
Twice I got the straight arm, talon grip. And with the bottle gripped in its middle, there was no place for me to grab, other than the top, and it would pop off just before the whole bottle went flying.
Finally, a teammate with boatloads of experience stepped in. The teammate was none other than Mark Whitehead, an Olympian and 20-time national champion. He saw me coming, held up the bottle then began running. As I neared, he turned to begin running backward and told me, “Take it into your chest.” As he did that, he mimicked the move. Then he held out the bottle by its neck with a grip delicate enough not to wrinkle paper. I still don’t know how he conveyed so much in what couldn’t have lasted two full seconds.
I took the bottle from his hand with the ease of another rider handing it to me. A lap later, he gave me another, though this time I slowed down less and he didn’t utter a word.
For those who don’t know, Mark died recently. He was only 50. He’s got kids, all of them young. Mark was known as a fierce competitor; he was also known for his conflicts. Only Kaddafi has crossed more people.
He was active as a coach and his current and former clients had closets-full of stars-and-stripes jerseys. When I think of what the cycling world has lost, what his family has lost, I think of that hand-up. He cared for racing so much he’d do repeated wind sprints just to see someone fed well enough to contest the sprint. Most remember him as a larger-than-life figure. And he was, but that wasn’t his whole story. Mark’s hidden strength was his delicate touch.
He could have handed me an unbroken egg that day.
I was at the tattoo shop late, pouring rain outside. I was having a piece finished up, and by the time we were done I was exhausted both from the hour and the pain. Matt, my tattoo guy, wrapped my tender arm in gauze and tape, and I pulled on my rain gear to ride the four miles home.
I just wanted to be home.
I came around a wide bend onto a main road and then I was on the ground. And bleeding. The knee of my rain gear torn clean through. I sat in the wet road for a minute, and a car pulled up to see if I was ok. I got up slowly and walked back to see what had brought me down, accidentally stepping into the pothole that had felled me, invisibly full of water and black to match the asphalt. I limped home to dress (and redress) my wounds.
At the best of times there is a rhythm of cadence, breath, and heart rate. You roll along lost in that rhythm as your computer counts by tenths, and your mind drifts along in its aerobic trance. Maybe you are not riding the bike at this point. Maybe the bike is riding you.
In the peloton there is a whir of white noise, 200 chains through 400 derailleurs, wheels against tarmac, a swarm of bees on a field of flowers.
And then there is that moment when someone ahead of you throws a water bottle off a pothole jolt. You hear the bounce. You see it rolling towards you, your mates yelling, and then it’s under your wheel, and you’re over the bars, and your skin is burning, sandpaper on balsa wood. There is an apology. These are rough roads. What can you do?
Or, the car shifts right ever so slightly, but in that one fractured moment the rider in front of you is cleaned out. You plow into him and go over the top, cart-wheeling into a barbed wire fence. The pain is incalculable, which is fortunate. Your brain can’t recognize all the places your skin has torn, so you get back on and ride.
Above you are flying, below you are rubble.
And it doesn’t matter whether you are you – average, anonymous you – or Johnny Fucking Hoogerland. Above is peace and below is pain. And you do what you can do to stay up at all times.
But, and this is the kicker, that searing, horrible pain reminds you you’re alive. After Hoogerland’s horrific Tour de France crash, he said, “We can still be happy that we’re alive. Nobody can be blamed for this. It’s a horrible accident and I was in it. But I said to Flecha, ‘We’re still alive, and Wouter Weylandt died in a crash.’”
Hoogerland became a legend when he pulled himself out of the barbed wire fence, rode to the finish and donned the polka dot jersey, but that’s beside the point. For him.
I sat there in the kitchen bleeding, my knee pulpy and red, some other bits and pieces weeping softly, the pain pulsing through me. I thought, briefly, to cry, like Hoogerland on the podium steps, but I didn’t. I was a young guy with a new tattoo, and the throbbing in my limbs told me everything that was important in that moment.
That I was alive.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel “Infinite Jest” is a sprawling, impossible novel, 1079 pages long with hundreds of foot and end notes that break up and expand on the multiple plot lines. It chronicles the tragi-comic exploits of a Canadian separatist group, a prep school tennis player and a half-way house addict, among others. It’s a book that bites off far more than any one novel could chew, but it is absolutely and stunningly brilliant.
The Tour de France is an impossible bike race—21 stages, thousands of kilometers, high mountain passes, time trials, bunch sprints. When Henri Desgranges concocted it, it was as the most audaciously challenging sporting event on the planet, like nothing sporting cyclists had ever attempted. And from its inaugural year, it has always sought to fulfill bike racing fans’ wildest dreams, an infinite jest.
In Foster Wallace’s book, there is a video cartridge, referred to as “the entertainment,” which is so compelling that it completely incapacitates anyone who sees it. It literally blows their minds. “The entertainment” is a comic element, but only because it doesn’t exist. There is no one perfect entertainment.
One of the things I don’t like about grand tours (I know, blasphemy!) is that they attempt too much. There are 21 races within the one race, but there are also mountains, points and young rider competitions going on simultaneously. There is the team competition. There are intermediate sprint points, combativity prizes. There is so much going on, there are so many opportunities to win SOMETHING, that it can begin to feel like a cub scout jamboree. Everyone leaves with a prize, and so, some years, none of the prizes seems to hold any great value.
The 2011 Tour de France was not one of those grand tours. The general classification battle between the Schlecks, Cadel Evans, Thomas Voekler and Alberto Contador inspired each of those riders to amazing rides. But also we watched Phillipe Gilbert storm the green jersey, before Mark Cavendish took it back. All the while JJ Rojas stole points to remain close. Andre Greipel took a stage off his former teammate/nemesis, as well. In the climber’s competition, we watch Johnny Hoogerland write a modern cycling legend, climbing out of a barbed wire fence to pull on the polka dots. Garmin-Cervelo won the team competition by animating the first week of the event and then launching Tommy Danielson into the top ten.
Did a day go by without some great story being told in carbon fiber, sweat and chain grease?
When I was younger I was a much more earnest reader of serious fiction, and I plowed through “Infinite Jest” over the summer of 1997. I loved it, but holy shit, that’s a book you can’t recommend to anyone else without looking like a pretentious jerk. Anyone who publishes a novel in excess of 1000 pages is taking a big gamble. If it fails, it’s an epic failure, and, if we’re honest, sometimes the Tour de France fails. This was not one of those times. In the wake of Angelo Zomegnan’s kamikaze Giro d’Italia, Tour director Christian Prudhomme needed to deliver a legitimate epic.
And, like Foster Wallace, he did, combining compelling characters with clever plot twists and iconic settings. It would be a stretch to call the Tour de France an infinite jest, but its perseverance, and the sheer quality of this year’s version, in the face of the ignominy of the last decade, suggest there is something enduring to the grandest of all bike races, something ineffable that holds our attention, even when common sense might suggest we turn away.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I ache for Thomas Voeckler. I ache for Andy Schleck. I ache for the end of the Tour de France.
In a tweet today David Millar wrote that as he rode in his car back to the hotel they approached a rider in Europcar kit; they slowed and Millar turned to lock eyes with a “tired and broken” Voeckler, adding, “Tragic doesn’t come close to describe.”
The cynical among us will gouge Voeckler for hubris, for dreaming the impossible. To do so is to inject cyanide into the very notion of ambition. That he discovered immortality seemingly within his grasp and dared reach for it is to be human. I admire that he maintained humility enough to insist that he would lose the race even as it was obvious he’d mortgage his home for an extra 20 watts.
That he rode the finest time trial of his life today is, perhaps the greatest honor he could bestow on himself and the race; yes, he honored the Tour de France today with his ride. It was his greatest ride because it showed his real character. Unlike so many riders who slink to the back of the field to nurse their destroyed legs once a win slips from grasp, Voeckler did the unthinkable. He continued to ride like a contender, even when it would no longer reward him. How else do you tell the world you’ve come to believe, not just in yourself, but even that you’re a part of what may be a new cycling?
That again. Yes, I do believe that his performance says that the peloton is cleaner. Kolobnev and his new honorific aside—don’t get me started—what I hope, what I’d like to think is that for the riders who may really achieve something noteworthy, maybe they’ve gotten the message that those of us who actually care about the sport want them to do it without the drugs. Voeckler has, for my money, delivered the defining ride of this year’s Tour de France. I’ll always remember 2011 for Cadel Evans’ victory, but I hope that the years don’t fade Voeckler’s ride in yellow for me. For each of us who ever dared dream, his days in yellow and his ride today testify to what we may find within reach.
Next year, he’ll arrive with the bit between his teeth. For that, I can’t wait.
If you’d asked me yesterday how I’d feel once Evans accomplished what most of us thought was an essentially foregone conclusion, I’d have told you I’d be happy for him. He rode with confidence and authority. Who knows if the tactical genius that caused him to conserve when possible and burn any time he needed to deliver was his or his director’s. It hardly matters. His yellow jersey is our res ipsa loquitur.
What surprises me is how I view the remarkable reversal of fortune Andy Schleck has suffered. Second. Again. The comparisons to Raymond Poulidor are unavoidable now. Even if he does win someday, his record will be compared to every great rider who failed more than he succeeded. Unless, of course, this is the last of his non-wins for a while.
And while I do think he’s likely to win at some point, I’ll tell you now, unless Contador makes the same mistake again next year (if you can call victory in the Giro a mistake—and I know that’s a real stretch), the Spaniard will arrive at the start with a thirst for blood that even Eric Northman would admire. I don’t plan to bet against him.
I’ve been rough on Contador in the past. Let me say this: His ride will be a more enduring feature of this year’s race than Fränk Schleck’s was. He rode with determination and pride, even after he knew he couldn’t win. He never capitulated, and in that regard, he and Voeckler have something in common.
It’s fair to wonder if Contador will be at next year’s Tour, depending how the CAS proceeding goes. Its postponement has turned his case into a goat parade: something so stupidly slow and pointless that no one can bear to watch. Should the case against him be upheld and a suspension imposed, I say let it stand for time served. Re-writing this year’s Tour de France will be as distasteful as a shot of straight alcohol. Isopropyl, that is.
Whatever he may or may not have done last year was last year, if he doesn’t test positive this year, then let the clean result stand.
Back to Schleck the younger: I think I have some sense of his pain. The buildup to him taking the maillot jaune off Voeckler was so slow and yet seemingly assured as to be steamroller inevitable. To see him stripped of it only 24 hours later was a change in tempo that would rattle any audience. I wonder just how comfortable he allowed himself to get in that jersey. Did he sleep in it last night just so he could have it against his body for as long as possible? We can’t fault him for hoping; Voeckler taught that master class. Still, no one can be surprised by this outcome and there surely is pain in that for Schleck.
Tomorrow the Tour de France ends, and that is my biggest ache of all. For me, the end of the Tour is nearly the end of summer itself. Monday has the crushing letdown that December 26 did when I was a child. Perhaps this is what a heroin or coke addict feels when they crash. That first post-Tour ride bears an emptiness in the air. It’s as if summer itself has gone stale. I buck up after a few days, but it’s been this way for me since ’86.
Finally, cycling isn’t really known for tracking its own statistics particularly well. We roll blindly into each new season, often without any clue as to what the past tells us about it. A fair chunk of my work for peloton magazine has looked at the sport’s history and what it tells us about some of our greatest racers and races. While I think numbers can be manipulated for nefarious purposes with greased ease (just consider gasoline), the Tour has something to say about Evans’ looming win. Tomorrow afternoon, the Aussie will become—at age 34—the oldest first-time winner of the Tour de France in the modern age.
What I think this tells us is that as racers have become more disciplined about all aspects of their training, from diet to rest to number of days raced, they are extending their careers. This shouldn’t surprise us; crashes notwithstanding, this is how guys like Jens Voigt and Chris Horner remain useful—scratch that, strong—with their 40th birthday around the corner.
There may be hope for us all.
Vive le Tour.
Image: Chris Wallis, Photosport International
There’s only one question we can ask on a day like today and it’s the question you’ve been waiting for:
Who will don the yellow jersey in Paris?
We didn’t ask before now because we knew that it would take this long for the question to either be worth asking or pointless in asking.
Though three riders (Schlecks 1 & 2 and Cadel Evans) are separated by less time than it takes for the average man to answer the call of nature, it seems fair to call this a two-man race: Andy and Evans. Fränk will have to pedal for all he’s worth as well to try and preserve a second place he’s likely to lose to Evans, but it seems unlikely he’ll overhaul his brother for the win. In fact, the most likely scenario for Fränk to keep his second place is if Andy has a collapse on the road (figurative rather than literal) and Evans leapfrogs the brothers into the lead.
But what do we know? We were wringing our hands at the prospect of Alberto Contador making this race less than exciting. He did precisely the opposite, though for reasons he’s probably not wild about.
Also, do you think Thomas Voeckler has any chance of ascending the podium?
And just to make this interesting, if someone can guess the top three and their final GC time gaps +/- five seconds, you’ll get an RKP cycling cap. Make sure to post your comment before the start of stage 20.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
All of the photography that I run from ProTeam events, such as the images from this year’s Tour de France come from John Pierce at Photosport International. I’ve got a relationship with John that goes back 15 years. I can tell you he has a wicked sense of humor. He can drink me and most folks I know under the table, not that he or I go in for that anymore. His knowledge of cycling goes back decades upon decades. He’s also a gifted and generous shooter.
It’s this latter detail that causes me to write now. While I pay John for the work that I run, I don’t pay him what the work is worth. It takes a team to produce work of the quality that John delivers; he doesn’t work in a vacuum. That a blog like RKP can secure work of this quality so soon after a stage (without stealing it from legitimate sites) is really an incredible fortune.
I’d like to do something more for John. From now through the end of the Tour, if you purchase a sticker pack, 100% of the proceeds will go to John. Purchase anything else, (hat, kit, gift pack, etc.) and I’ll give him 10% of the proceeds. To the degree that you value his work and enjoy seeing it here, this is a way to show your appreciation, and help me show mine.
You can visit the store here.
Images: Chris Wallis, Photosport International
The Tour’s current status as a wealthy, far-reaching business enterprise that is the heart of the professional racing calender is huge reversal of fortune. There are teams who argue that without a trip to the Tour their sponsors will abandon them. It wasn’t always so. In the 1970s there was talk that because of its precarious financial position, the Tour might have to be nationalized and teams sometimes had to be begged to enter the Tour. Félix Lévitan, who was then responsible for the financial side of the Tour, used many small sponsors to pay the Tour’s expenses. Prizes were sometimes in kind rather than cash. At one point there were twelve classifications the riders could compete for and the awards ceremonies were endless. It was all a bit tawdry. In the 1990s Jean-Marie Leblanc cut the number of sponsors in order to make the race “comprehensible”. The result was a gusher of money for the Tour and its current prosperity. In spite of this fabulous success, there is reason to be concerned.
The question of the Tour’s importance, cost and relevance is one Les Woodland dealt with in the concluding chapter of Tourmen: The Men Who Made the Tour de France.—Bill McGann
The most serious of Sunday papers is Le Journal du Dimanche, which means “The Sunday Paper.” It began, like L’Équipe, after the war. Since then its analytical approach has earned it a place in serious-thinking France. Its opinion surveys are conducted by Ifop, the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique, founded after a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris met the pollster George Gallup in the USA. Ifop has become the heavyweight of French polling organizations and its assessments of politicians and policies are taken seriously. This underlines the worth of the survey in 2007, for the Journal du Dimanche, of how the French view their Tour. And the French, it seemed, line the road with few illusions. The paper summarized: “78 percent of them doubt the honesty of a victory, whether it’s in the Tour de France or any other race.”
Do you, personally, like the Tour de France?
|Total (%)||Men (%)||Women (%)|
Today, when a rider wins a stage of the Tour de France or another cycling race, do you doubt the honesty of the victory?
Which of these opinions fits you better?
|The fight against doping in cycling should be conducted even more severely and cheats should be excluded from races, even if they are stars||80|
|Doping is now widespread in cycling; that should be recognized and it should be handled medically||19|
The Journal du Dimanche said the worry was that “only 36 percent of those younger than 35 say they like the Tour; it is older people who have kept their affection: 64 percent of those older than 50, 70 percent of those aged more than 65. Probably because this generation grew interested before the era of suspicion, whether it was individual (Pedro Delgado, contested winner in 1988) or generalized (starting with the Festina affair in 1998). Perhaps, too, because you have to go back two decades to find the last French riders in yellow in Paris, Laurent Fignon (1983) and Bernard Hinault (1985).”
Why? What does this mean? What else is there?
• • •
Graeme Fife spoke of divisions of cycle racing: “The men who concentrate on the Tour and nothing else and the real pros who honor the tradition of the sport.” The last great stars to ride a whole season, with heart as well as legs, were Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. The first not to, he reckoned, was Greg LeMond. And he was speaking before Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and others.
The result of specialization parallels Mario Cipollini. He rode a seven-day Tour when everyone else rode a month. Those who concentrate on the Tour ride the same race but a different season. They hardly start from the same place. More than that, they force others to do the same, for there’s no point in starting if you don’t hope to win or have your leader win. The result is that even classics are becoming preparation for the Tour. And more and more specialists aren’t riding those either.
The specialization rumbles more disastrously further down. The classics and Tours make up the visible part of the year. It would be disastrous if the classics lost their luster. But padding out the calendar and therefore the living of professionals in general are the little races, the Tours of this-that-and-the-other put on by clubs which every year scrape together the money. The more the stars, the more easily can be collected the money. But there are standing costs and a minimum prize list and so the price doesn’t fall proportionately with the quality of the field. When sponsors lose interest in minnows, they keep their money in their wallet or choose another sport.
In France, the best of the rest are banded into a season-long competition called the Coupe de France. The hope is to create excitement and maintain interest. But, for all that the races are open to everyone, the field is almost all French with a handful from across the border if the race is near Belgium and a sprinkling of foreigners obliged to ride because they are in French teams. They are good races but…who cares?
Some of it is that no French rider has won the Tour de France in decades. The last was Bernard Hinault in 1986, ending a period in which Frenchmen won 20 of the 39 Tours since the war. An immediate fall from a success rate of almost 50 percent to exactly zero doesn’t go unquestioned. And France asks the question over and over.
If you’re not French, of course, it doesn’t matter. You don’t notice it. But there are concerns for all. The more Americans have won the Tour, the more the sport has succeeded in America. Belgium never had more new riders than when Eddy Merckx won five Tours. Even Britain, never better than fourth, was wonderfully happy when it happened, and its success on the track—including what one French commentator called un holdup at the Olympics—turned the British Cycling Federation from a damp rag to an organization with more members than ever.
Success breeds success. And defeat encourages defeat. Hinault’s club in Yffiniac, brimming in his day, has half a dozen members now. Jacques Anquetil’s club at Sotteville, across the river from Rouen, all but vanished when he vanished. French cycling is in a dreadful state. And while we may not know the reason, the consequences could be worrying.
The Tour takes place on public roads. It is subsidized at public expense. It pays for police to escort it but there is local expense as towns and cities lay on start and finish lines. There is no guarantee they will make a profit and, when they do, it can only be guessed how much business the race has brought. Along the way, a hundred communities a day are disrupted by having their thoroughfare closed, access to shops and bars and filling stations with it, not just while the riders pass but for hours before it. People can’t get in and out of where they live. Nobody can drive across what becomes a wall across the country, moving on a little each day. It’s all very well knowing that Gaston in the village bar is selling more beer than usual but that counts little when you’re stopped from your daily life without recompense.
On Mont Ventoux, taxpayers pay to have eight tons of litter shifted every summer, most, says the mayor, from cyclists and their followers. The Tour is an expense to many more towns and communes than it is a profit for others. Sponsorship may cover the main costs but they overlook all the incidental ones: the disruption, litter, damage, loss of trade, minor road improvements, signposting of road closures, expenses for planning meetings, medical care and much else.
The crowds for the Tour grow year by year, sometimes dropping, always making up what they lost. Nobody knows for sure because they can’t be counted—claims for places like the Alpe d’Huez are preposterous because there just isn’t that much room beside the road—but nobody denies they are a lot. The crowds turn the Tour into a national occasion, a month-long street party. But…
What happens when a politician questions, as one will, what right the sport has to clog up the roads of France in summer when only foreigners win? The logic isn’t complete but the sentiment appeals. And it appeals to the many, as the Journal du Dimanche’s survey showed, who have no interest in the Tour. For the moment nobody has said it. But it would take only an analysis of the cost of disruption to start the questioning.
To question the Tour would be politically risky. Not everyone in France is a Tour fan—most are no more than generally interested—but there are enough that they’re best left unprovoked when votes are at stake. To call off the Tour, therefore, is improbable. But what would it take for the government to say “Gentlemen, we lend you the roads of France at the expense of the French, but we get little back in national pride. You run a commercial company and you exist to make a profit. Perhaps the time has come to give back to France some of what it has given you. You can’t, we know, guarantee a French winner. But let’s say that we will give you the roads again each summer if you at least give us a French team. Please, go away, do what Henri Desgrange did in 1930 and give us something to cheer for.”
Old Dezzie must be chuckling in his slumber.
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
And we thought we’d seen surprising riding.
To this point in my life, today’s stage 18 is the single most thrilling single stage of what has already been the single most surprising and dramatic Tour de France in memory.
Lest anyone have harbored any doubts that this was the most exciting and unpredictable Tour de France in a generation, today served as the incontrovertible evidence that we haven’t seen a Tour this wide-open since most of the audience started school. To quantify the number of variables still in play that could determine the final podium of the Tour de France hardly seems possible. I’ll put it in perspective this way: Were this a Hollywood script, the Schleck brothers would be condensed into a single character and Basso and Cunego would have been written out of the storyline in the Pyrenees, along with Contador. Voeckler, Evans and just one Schleck is about the maximum that the average Hollywood script doctor will accept. Tinseltown prefers its conflicts binary, just like football.
Those many storylines are what make stage 18 superior to Greg LeMond’s victory in the final time trial of the ’89 Tour de France (or any other stage of that year’s Tour), Floyd Landis’ reversal-of-fortune ride to Morzine, dare I say, even Lance Armstrong’s 2003 win atop Luz Ardiden on a broken bike.
Armstrong went into that stage with only 15 seconds on Jan Ullrich and 18 seconds on Alexandre Vinokourov. However, The Euskaltel duo of Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo were more than four minutes back and guaranteed to lose boatloads of time in the final time trial, so everyone watching knew there were only three guys who could win the Tour.
Going into today’s stage less than four minutes separated the top eight on GC. By this point in the race, we don’t ordinarily have so many riders seemingly in contention.
Here was the GC this morning before the start:
|Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar||
|Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team||
|Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||
|Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||
|Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi||
|Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard||
|Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre – ISD||
|Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale||
|Tom Danielson (USA) Team Garmin-Cervelo||
|Rigoberto Uran (Col) Sky Procycling||
Of the top eight, only Cunego and Basso really had ceased to be spoken of with the reverent tones reserved for potential victors. Each of the top six were a storyline unto themselves. Voeckler was defying the odds. Evans was riding like a potential winner. Fränk Schleck was the one of Leopard-Trek’s one-two punch. Brother Andy was the whiny but gifted climber who made the threat of his brother so dangerous. Sammy Sanchez was strong, courageous, unpredictable and … willing to work for Contador. And Contador, though he seemed not to be his usual self, was still too strong to be disregarded.
The younger Schleck’s attack may have worked for one simple reason: Contador didn’t have the legs to respond. Had he been stronger, it seems likely he wouldn’t have allowed last year’s bridesmaid to ride up the road, so strong is the rivalry between the two. Following his terrible descending in the rain on stage 15, Schleck did a fair drop down the Col d’Izoard on his way to catching teammate Maxime Monfort; that alone made his attack redemptive.
For years, the GC race at the Tour has been derided because the players wait for the final climb and then attack with everything they have. At last, with Schleck’s attack, we saw an act of courage, where in his own words he was “all in.” Schleck even admitted that the ride could have gone either way
We’ve entered an era where the afterburner attacks must be used rarely and late in the stage, if at all. The question of what we’re left with as options was answered less by Schleck than the old fox, Francesco Moser, who we are told spent some time with the brothers last night. Though Moser never triumphed at the Tour, he knows a thing or two about wily victories.
Can we give Moser some sort of prize for helping to animate the race? In truth, he did little more than remind the Schlecks of how Grand Tours were won during the age of Merckx. Tonight, all the contenders will go to bed seeing this race with new eyes.
It took guts and determination for Evans to tow the shrinking peloton the way he did. It’s an inglorious path to victory, but he has proven he won’t go surrender to anyone. And for those who wonder why he allowed Andy to ride up the road, when he was clearly such a threat, it was the smartest thing he could do with brother Fränk sitting on his wheel. A counterattack by Fränk could have destroyed Evans’ ambitions, which are only currently wounded.
Both Voeckler and Contador have conceded defeat, the latter just this afternoon, the former every day since he donned the jersey. What’s comical here is how we have every reason to believe Contador and zero reason to believe Voeckler. Never in the Tour de France has a rider spoken more derisively of his chances while riding with such determined ferocity. He’s not giving up and the only thing coming out of his mouth that we can trust is carbon dioxide.
Perhaps the most mysterious ride of the day was delivered by Voeckler’s teammate, Pierre Rolland. As the one teammate left in the lead group on the Galibier, he would have been an obvious choice to help Evans with pace making. Based on his one trip to the front, it seemed that he didn’t have the horsepower to help much, but I suspect there was an additional force at work. Should an additional attack have come (that one didn’t says a lot about how infernal Evans’ pace was), Rolland was there to help pace Voeckler back to the leaders. He was the proverbial ace up the sleeve, as proven by the fact that he finished sixth on the stage.
Only 1:12 separates four riders with a classic Alpine stage to go. Unfortunately for Thomas Voeckler, even if he doesn’t lose a second to either Schleck on l’Alpe d’Huez, he is likely to lose at least a minute to Andy in the time trial. Last year Voeckler—with no pride or classification on the line—gave up almost three minutes to Schleck in the final, 52km, ITT. Even if he rides out of his skin on this 41km test, preserving his lead seems unlikely.
That’s a shame. A spot on the podium is an inadequate reward for Voeckler’s revelatory ride, his tenacity, his poker, his leap of faith in himself.
But the real man of the day is Andy Schleck, who presented himself to us today as a man of real courage, a man of daring. Of course, Schleck’s daring is minor when compared to what Contador attempted. If Alberto-freakin’-Contador can’t pull off the Giro-Tour double at the age of 28, with six consecutive Grand Tour wins under his belt, then I say we are unlikely to see it accomplished again. Armstrong knew not to attempt such a sweep. Will this chasten Contador from trying again? And what does this spell for his relationship with Riis?
With three days to go, only one thing seems certain: Whoever stands atop the podium in Paris will have earned our respect on their way to a deserved win.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
If you’d asked me before the Tour started to list ten things that might happen during this year’s race, I don’t think the list would have included Alberto Contador losing time on multiple stages. I wouldn’t have suggested Andy Schleck would pull up timid on a rainy Alpine descent and brake his way out of contention. And I certainly wouldn’t have listed an assertive ride by a yellow-jersey-wearing Thomas Voeckler as perhaps the best single piece of evidence that the peloton is cleaner than it once was. God knows I wouldn’t have envisioned Thor Hushovd winning two mountain stages.
Nope, I wouldn’t have considered any of those as even remotely possible. But every one has come to pass.
With his ride in stage 16 Contador has proven that to count him out is to define foolhardy. I’m doubtful of his chances to win, but one can afford to be nonchalant in his presence the way one can be nonchalant around a cobra. Even if he can manage 15 or 20 seconds on all his rivals over the three remaining mountain stages and the time trial, that won’t be enough to boost him onto the podium.
One wonders whose ambition it was to even dream Contador could sweep all three Grand Tours this year. Was it Contador himself or was it Bjarne Riis? And if it was Riis, what will the repercussions be should Pistolero not pull a rabbit out of his hat before Paris? If Contador can’t pull off this victory, the age of the Giro-Tour double will truly have passed.
With the piece of descending we saw Schleck exhibit on the drop into Gap, the timidity that resulted in him losing 1:09 to Cadel Evans and 1:06 to Contador probably dashed his hopes to win this Tour. Frankly, his riding was so un-PRO that he doesn’t deserve the podium.
Darwin wrote that the story of the world was one of adaptation, descent with modification. Faced with obsolescence at the legs of Mark Cavendish, Hushovd has reinvented himself more thoroughly than any rider since Laurent Jalabert’s phoenix act in the 1990s. I consider him one of the three smartest riders in the race. He is the embodiment of the adage, “le tete et le jambs.”
As to Voeckler, he was already on what is arguably the best season he has ever enjoyed even before arriving at the Tour. So we must grant that he’s a better rider than he was in 2004, the first time he took the yellow jersey at the Tour. That said, in the era of Armstrong et al, sheer combativeness and tenacity weren’t enough to hold on to yellow. To suggest that will alone is enough is to believe that you really can stop a bullet by putting your finger in the barrel of a gun.
French cycling has been very nearly the laughingstock of the peloton since the Festina Affair. I’ve wondered if French athletes didn’t take some lesson from the incident to heart. Following the confessions that came as a result of the Festina Affair only six French athletes have tested positive (many countries have had two dozen or more), and the only one of them who was a notable GC rider was Pascal Hervé (yes, he of the Festina Affair), and that was in 2001.
I’ve often thought the fact that there has been only one prominent French GC rider (Christophe Moreau) in the last 10 years and the fact that French cycling has been curiously devoid of doping scandals weren’t just coincidences. I see it as cause and effect.
There’s an arc to this story. French riders were late to the EPO wagon; the Netherlands and Italy led the way, but they caught up, and in a big way, which is why Richard Virenque was one of the most feared climbers in the peloton during that time. And then we get Willy Voet’s ill-fated border crossing and Virenque’s teary confession in front of a judge.
To me, that past, those details and now Voeckler’s performance en jaune are of a piece. If you’re at your limit because the peloton rides at two speeds, then there’s no way for you to respond to an acceleration by a certified contender like Ivan Basso. That is, not unless everyone’s on the same program.
This is guesswork on my part; educated, but still guesswork. Still, it leads me to say that I find it easier to believe that Basso and Contador are clean than Voeckler is dirty. If we can have guilt by association, then maybe we can have innocence by association, too.
After all the scandals, the mudslinging, the unsubstantiated accusations and crazy revelations, the best possible thing that could happen for cycling right now is for Thomas Voeckler to arrive in Paris, clad in yellow. I’m not willing to put five bucks on that happening just yet, but it’s an outcome I’d cheer for, just the way I cheered in 1999.
Image, John Pierce, Photosport International