It was just more than a week ago most Tour observers, which is to say all but the 198 riders in the event, were wringing their hands in the anticipated ennui brought on by Alberto Contador’s virtually assured dominance of said Tour. To call our projection of the future a state of anxiety  is to confuse being eaten by a Great White Shark with stubbing your toe.

The tiny Spaniard, we assumed, was going to trounce everyone and everything like the school bully. It was an image fraught with contradiction.

But it’s an interesting world full of unexpected turns. Alberto Contador currently sits in 39th place on the GC, an incredible 1:42 down on Thor Hushovd, but more importantly, 1:41 down on Cadel Evans, a rider who, at the age of 34, is statistically certain not to win the Tour de France. Let me phrase that a bit differently: Since the end of World War II, no rider has won their first Tour de France at such an, ahem, advanced age.

But statistics aren’t a record of what’s possible, just what’s happened so far.

How we imagine the world going forward, what we think can happen, can be born in the tiniest of moments. It was in the stage 4 sprint that I saw the possibility that Alberto Contador might not already have the 2011 Tour de France in the bag. Allow me to explain.

The Tour’s history includes plenty of examples of riders who lost time early in the race only to recoup it all and then some with a couple of days in the mountains. Even Greg LeMond pulled back 10 freakin’ minutes on a guy who had more EPO in his blood than plasma. I wasn’t concerned when Contador lost 1:20 on the opening stage. Come on? To Philippe Gilbert? Gilbert is likely to go down as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—one-day riders of his generation. But Grand Tour winner? I’ve covered this.

What was certainly more interesting was the fact that he’d given up 1:17 to Cadel Evans, and 1:14 to both Andy and Frank Schleck, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner. That Contador has risen to 39th from 82nd says less about his riding (after all, he has lost time while rising on GC) and more about how the field gradually implodes over time.

It was in stage 4, in watching the reactions of Contador and Evans as they hit the line that I began to wonder if this year might truly be different. The details were small, but changes are often found in a single grain of sand. First was the fact that Contador was surprised when he didn’t ride everyone off his wheel. Second, he waited a long time, too long as it turns out, to take a second run at the sprint. Third, he sprinted with his hands on the hoods, a position from which you really can’t generate the most powerful sprint. Finally, he permitted himself a slight celebratory salute for a win he hadn’t actually earned. It’s that last that sticks with me.

Did he, like the rest of us, assume that the 2011 Tour de France was a mere formality? I liken it to sitting down for escrow on a new home. All the negotiations are complete. The documents are drawn. By the time you sit down, all you’re going to do is sign your name again and again.

Ideally, if I’m going to see last year’s Tour de France champion beaten, I’d like to see him defeated on his home court—the mountains—rather than in an accumulation of rotten luck early in the race. The events of these days may remind us of a certain performance last year than finished with an ignominious departure for a former giant. The parallels here are juicy, but the fruit not yet ripe to pick.

Ladies and gentlemen, this thing is wide open.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

, , , , , , , , ,


    1. Author

      It’s easily possible. I didn’t see it that way, but as I lack divine omniscience we need to consider the possibility. Part of the reason I thought he was giving a salute was the fact that he was moving faster than Evans and thinking he had won would have been an easy mistake to make. Contador was first off the white ribbon of the finish line. The other reason it seemed a salute, if half-hearted, was how he punched out and slightly up, not down. Mostly I see guys strike the bar in frustration, not punch up into the air. I’ve done plenty of the former, but never the latter in the event of getting beaten.

  1. randomactsofcycling

    As a former giant once said “Sometimes you’re the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail”. Contador is now having his share of bad luck but he is the only rider I can see putting two minutes into a (finally having some good luck) Cadel Evans in the mountains and then making it stick in the TT. Andy Schleck might rocket up the mountains but there is always the lingering doubt about his TT ability.
    Contador just doesn’t seem sharp. Perhaps he’s deliberately come into the race underdone and hopes to come good in Week 3?

    1. Author

      RandomActs: I agree that Contador’s legs aren’t as sharp as we’ve seen. The thing I can’t figure is how he could be so fit at the Giro, not be sharp now, and have any hope of getting his fitness ready to slice by the last week of the Tour. That’s a turnaround speedier than I think you can really manage even with drugs.

  2. Phil

    Judging by Andy Schlecks form in the last few months, especially in the Tour de Suisse where Jens “I’m the Chuck Norris of Cycling” Voigt rode up to him on a mountain pass and patted him on the back, he won’t be figuring much in the overall standings. I think it is coming down to a two horse race between Evans and Contador – lots of heart vs. lots of talent. I’m not saying either rider lacks the other, but it’s sort of like a Rocky film, and Evans is a far more eloquent version of our beloved talking punching bag.

  3. sophrosune

    As the Spanish are fond of saying, Contador’s prospects in this tour are “complicado”. And truthfully they were from the very beginning. You don’t prepare for an excellent showing in the Tour by riding one of the most difficult Giros in history. Everything had to go perfectly and it hasn’t. By the look of things, I think Cadel is the favorite now to win the TdF, and as a Contador fan, I can live with that. On the other hand, A. and F. Schleck are still in the hunt and can make a formidable 1&2 punch in the mountains. I wonder if Contador and Evans might not agree to take one brother or the other on any attacks. 😉

  4. Big Mikey

    Good observations/comments.

    Noticing the look on AC’s face when he attacked and was caught made me think he doesn’t have what he had in the Giro and last year’s Tdf, whether that be fitness or pharma supply.

    AS hasn’t shown anything for climbing prowess this year, which is worrisome. Doesn’t mean he’s not capable of climbing well, just that nobody’s seen him do it.

    Will be interesting to see how it rolls out. AC has had some bad luck, and winning the tour requires lots of good luck.

  5. James

    The thing about Cadel so far is that he has been riding very smart! He has been a joy to watch so far this year…a far cry from previous years. So far I have found the Tour very enjoyable this year because Contador is under pressure. It’s not the sure thing of past Grand Tours.

  6. lqdedison

    I’d have to agree with James. This has been one of the more exciting tours in the last few years.

    It is indeed “wide open” as our author put it.

    I have a feeling Contador will not disappoint. Do I think he can win it? No, but I believe he’s not going down with out a fight. The odds and lack of supporting cast from his team in the form of proper domestiques are against him. Yet he’s punchy. I liked his thumbs up to the camera after he fell a couple of stages ago. I think he still feels he’s got it.

    Cadel has been very smart, or at least it appears so, and for once as been riding to win.

    The Schlecks have been quietly saving their energy riding amidst the peleton. A bit boring but smart on their part.

    Let’s not forget Basso…has anyone actually seen him riding in the peleton? He’s on the list for the GC but we haven’t heard a word from or about him. He might not be as good off the dope but he’s my dark horse. I think he’s waiting it out just like the Schlecks.

    It’s going to be an exciting tour for once and I am certainly tuning in!

  7. Ac7

    I have to agree that you can only judge so much from body language and that we must wait until the mountains to see who is really fit this year. I’m going to put it out there that in two weeks we’ll be talking about Contador’s brilliant bluff, not wasting energy when there was no real time to gain back from a silly crash. Anyway it’s all just speculation for now — I just can’t believe that Contador has had such a poor recovery that we won’t see flashes of the brilliance he showed in the Giro in the high mountains.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *