The first week of the 2011 Tour de France has been full of nothing so much as surprises. From Alberto Contador’s time loss to the other favorites to the fact that Tom Danielson is the best-placed rider on Garmin-Cervelo to just how long teammate and sprinter Thor Hushovd actually held on to the race leader’s maillot jaune, the week can best be described as something we wouldn’t have guessed.
There’s been loads of talk and hand-wringing about the incredible number of crashes at this year’s Tour. It’s impossible to quantify each crash and the injuries suffered and compare them and their severity to previous years, but we do have the advantage of one truly objective measure: DNFs.
I spent a little while this afternoon (in between trips to the bathroom—I’ve been sick enough to be short on creative energy) [UPDATE: Apparently I was sick enough that I didn't stop to consider the number of starters in between said trips. I've overhauled my analysis based on a reconsideration. This is what you get when a blogger ought to be confined to the couch and the remote. Sorry.] checking previous editions of the Tour for abandons and DNSs. In the last ten years (I’m going to confine this analysis to a jury of peers), by stage 9, the average number of abandons was 13.9. The Tour has suffered 18 abandons this year, tied for the second highest (2007 also had 18 abandons) in the last 10 years. That said, 2003 was a very rough year, with 26 abandons; three of those were riders with GC hopes: Joseba Beloki, Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer. The reason for the high number of abandons that year had less to do with crashes than the fact that the race already had two brutal days in the mountains.
This analysis does suffer a bit of a wrinkle. Most of these years began with a prologue, the upshot being stage 9 fell on the day following the first rest day. Rather than stick with the actual number of days raced, I chose to go with the number of stages because it results in a truer equivalence of days raced in the peloton. Bottom line: The perception that there are a lot of abandons, more than usual.
Have the crashes been worse? It’s hard to make a case for that, with the exception of the way Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) were taken out by the car from French network 23. It was a piece of driving I’d have expected from some rookie hailing from a cycling backwater, such as Morocco, not from the network of record for le Tour. It’s tantamount to a 168-year-old newspaper getting shut down for hacking into cell phones and deleting voicemails of murder victims. Nevermind. Some stuff you just don’t do.
I told the TV, “I didn’t just see that.”
Where were we? Oh yeah, those numerous crashes.
Only four of the pre-race favorites are out: Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Chris Horner (Radio Shack) and Bradley Wiggins (Sky). All things considered, it could be worse. I’m going to go out on a short limb and assert that of these four riders VDB was the only one with any real shot at the podium. Wiggins had zero shot. Zero. The only Criterium du Dauphiné winners who go onto the podium at the Tour de France are previous Tour winners. It’s happened four times in the last 20 years and their names were Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong—two apiece. Alberto Contador has yet to do it. At best, statistically speaking, Wiggins had a shot at fourth.
What of the abandon of Tom Boonen? It’s unfortunate, to be sure, but a complete non-event. Boonen was riding anonymously as his 50th place overall in the points competition indicates. KOM leader Hoogerland had more than double the number of sprint points Boonen collected.
Crashes are an inevitable, if unfortunate, reality of professional racing. That the peloton slowed to let favorites rejoin following one of the crashes during stage 9 was, I thought, an act of pure class. No one wants to see a competitor beaten at the Tour due to sheer bad luck. At Paris-Roubaix? Sure; that race is all about how the dice rolls, but the Tour is meant to be a test of a racer’s mettle, not his ability to dodge crashes for three weeks.
What’s seems most surprising is how Contador has thus far turned in Lance Armstrong’s 2010 performance. It’s hard to make a case that his head is fully in the game to this point in the race. Yes, he’s been there on occasion, which is better than we can really say of Armstrong’s performance last year. That descent into forgettability was a comedic re-take of Eddy Merckx’ 1977 ride to sixth place at le Grand Boucle, a failure people have often said tarnished Merckx’ legacy. And we know Armstrong didn’t get anything like sixth.
Contador lies in 16th place overall and with more than 1:30 to make up on Cadel Evans, Frank Schleck and brother Andy Schleck. It’s a tall order, and while history shows that Contador won the 2009 Tour by 4:11, he didn’t do it with a Giro win in his legs. There is reason to think that this year’s performance may bear more in common with last year’s performance given that A) Contador lacked some of his famous acceleration last year following his second place at the Critérium du Dauphiné and B) has yet to dump anyone on a climb this year.
My money is on someone named Schleck. It’s a bit like betting black, but I think the brothers will probably figure out that they can’t both win, which should give them the necessary ruthlessness to send one up the road while they hang the other around Evans’ neck, the albatross he can’t get rid of.
Literally, the only thing in this race that shouldn’t surprise us is the way Philippe Gilbert is kicking large-scale ass.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
For the record, here are the numbers of riders that abandoned by the end of stage 9 for each of the last 10 years—
2011: 18 (198 starters, 180 still in the race)
2010: 16 (197 starters, 181 still in the race)
2009: 9 (180 starters, 171 still in the race)
2008: 9 (179 starters, 170 still in the race)
2007: 18 (189 starters, 171 still in the race)
2006: 6 (176 starters, 170 still in the race)
2005: 14 (189 starters, 175 still in the race)
2004: 16 (188 starters, 172 still in the race)
2003: 26 (198 starters, 172 still in the race)
2002: 7 (189 starters, 182 still in the race)