The Ache

I ache.

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

 

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24 comments

  1. MCH

    The future looks bright!
    With the leveling of the field due to reduced PEDs, we’ll see we’ll see older riders with talent and morals come forward – think Evans and Voeckler. We’ll also see many new riders from many countries, including France, move to the front. A deeper, more level, peloton will create the necessity for daring riding, tactics, and all-around skills.
    Course design should play an interesting role as well. With the ASO’s promise of “interesting” courses in the future, my guess is that all-around skills will become more important. All-around meaning climbing and time trialing, plus descending, the ability to ride in all weather conditions, as well as the ability to ride challenging roads consisting of cobbles or gravel. Wouldn’t it be great to see more Tour contenders riding the classics in order to hone these skills? One can hope.
    I’m looking forward to more!

  2. Jim

    Nicely put. Agreed about Voeckler. He had a real shot, just couldn’t keep it together on Stage 19. Had he just maintained contact, he’d have been at least on the podium. Hopefully he takes hope from this, and tailors his training to the GC.

    As for the doping – it looked a lot cleaner and the NYT remarked upon the slower average finishing times, as a fan I noticed guys who had a 5th gear, but no nitrous bottle on the downtube. The only suspicious thing I saw was Contador – who was paperboying for 5-6 days in the mountains, all of a sudden riding dominantly on Friday and Saturday. Maybe he had a sudden revival but it looked soooo suspicious, partially because that Superman-stuff is so often later tied to guys who are subsequently caught or deeply implicated in doping. Fool me 150 times, shame on you, fool me 151, shame on me…

  3. fausto

    Well said. Now I wait for Lombardy then depression sets in until spring time in Belgium. The beauty of the tour is that no matter how many predict what will happen, every day is a surprise. Someone big always is crash effected, just can never pinpoint who. A new young gun emerges, someone rides out of their skin only to come up 1k short and it breaks your heart. A hero is created out of tragedy or barb wire fence. Three weeks of beauty, tears and inspiration, never disappoints. Chapeau.

  4. Susi

    We in Colorado are thrilled that many of the Tour teams and riders are heading to the Rockies next month. Having them here will help delay Tour de France withdrawal for a bit longer. Other than the advice to NOT run foolishing alongside a rider in my underwear (me in MY underwear, not the cyclist weaing my underwear), what advice would you have for someone planning to watch in awe by the side of the road?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Susi: Advice? How about a prescription: Take the week off, rent a camper and follow the race. Arrive to your viewing spot the day before the race passes and park 1k from the top of the climb. Make sure you have sparkling water by the gallon (and a few bottles of Rosé, too).

  5. Randomactsofcycling

    Yes, it’s always a bummer. Another year of waiting and watching the highlights from the home trainer. I agree with Fausto in that full depression doesn’t occur until after Lombardy.
    I’ll always remember this Tour as Cadel’s and I hope others will remember it for the true spectacle that it was. It was the best edition I have ever seen and not just because the eventual winner is Australian. A great parcours that gave so many surprising stage winners should be recognized. Well done ASO.
    What will cause me to ache is if the memory of Cadel’s win is only about the ITT. He won another stage, rode superbly in the bunch for three weeks (unlike Contador whose bunch positioning is still not good enough) then dragged the contenders up the Galibier and Alp D’Huez single-handedly (read his blog “so I pulled one turn….for 9kms…”) before riding a TT that is really only true to form than out of his skin. In this Tour he is the most complete and that’s how it should be.
    I ache for the Vuelta. How can it ever emerge from the shadows of the Giro and Tour?

  6. Pablo Skils

    This is good Patrick. You’re supposed to be left aching! For too many years now, Le Tour has left me with an unpalatable ambivalence; unsure exactly what it was that I just witnessed, I knew only that I didn’t really like it. Not at all the kind of feelings one should have after watching an honest bike race. But this year it somehow felt better. So to read that you’re left feeling gutted* for those that tried so hard and failed, that’s a good sign. It suggests that you too feel the race was more honest this year.

    As for me, I’m jubilant! I have watched Cadel closely since 1994, when I first saw him as a 15 year-old racing at Mammoth, able even at that young age to mix it up with the likes of Overend, Gould, and Frischknecht. I was astounded by his talent, and saw it help change the style of racing. He was a genuinely likeable kid, too: Smart, honest, and charmingly ingenuous.

    Cadel proved a great world cup campaigner, winning that punishing mountain bike series twice, but he seemed unable to channel his talent for the big occasion and left the dirt scene without a rainbow jersey.

    Although mentally tough, he lacked that sense of self assurance that somebody like Armstrong has in spades. On the road we saw this manifest in Cadel’s hesitation to put it on the line and attack people.

    Something of a loner, and not a natural leader, I never thought he was psychologically cut out for the wolf pack mentality of the road world. It seemed that the asphalt would offer him a bumpier ride than the MTB circuit. Although I wasn’t in touch with him personally, I heard reports and got the impression from television that his team never really supported him.

    He gradually became more and more self-reliant in a sport that depends so heavily on a strong team structure. And since he is somebody who seemed to thrive on the support of others, this had the feeling of an ugly paradox. I wondered if he would ever find a way to channel that talent of his. The 2009 world championships, in which he reportedly had only the hesitating support of his national team, came as a huge breakthrough, and I think this was the ultimate statement of an irrepressible if unpredictable talent and his desire to win.

    And then it changed. BMC came along with a team that was ready and willing to fully commit to him. I have to think this was partly to do with one of the co-founders, Charlie Livermore, who had been Cadel’s manager for years on the MTB circuit.

    Cadel seemed to flourish in the BMC team, and watching the way he raced this year’s Tour it seemed as though he finally has a team setting that enables him be the master his talent. Looking at his steely-eyed expression in the start booth of Saturday’s ITT, he seemed every bit as focused and determined as I’ve ever seen from Armstrong.

    But something else occurs to me about Cadel. He remains deeply influenced by his longtime trainer, the late Also Sassi, a kind and sincere man I spoke to on occasion and who ardently opposed doping. Cadel was never a doper. Yet many who have beaten him in Le Tour have been accused or convicted of doping.

    Floyd Landis, in his recent interview with Graham Bensinger, stated that in all his years of doping he didn’t believe he was depriving any clean riders of a result. I first knew Floyd as a mountain biker on the World Cup circuit. I never got to speak to him much as a journalist, because he usually finished minutes behind Cadel, back around the high teens or low 20s on the result sheet.

    I would love to ask Floyd: what about Cadel? Do you think in a fully clean field Cadel might have won a Tour or two by now? After watching the Tour this year I have the uncomfortable feeling that Cadel, like Thomas Frischknecht and probably a few others, would have achieved even greater glory were it not for the doping. And I look at the results of this year’s Tour and I say: Yes Cadel, you finally got what you so richly deserve in so many ways, and I feel that a little justice has been done.

    * gutted = English slang for a sadness that goes to the pit of the stomach.

  7. grolby

    You took the words out of my mouth, Randomactsofcycling, on Cadel Evans’ Tour. There is the World Championships. There is Lombardia. I guess there is San Sebastien and the Vuelta (admittedly, it is often a good race, but Grand Tour fatigue has set in for me at that point. And there is Paris-Tours, which has managed to be interesting, lately. But the meat of the cycling season is mostly over, the prelude to a long, cold winter.

    With respect to Voeckler, what I ache for is what could have been for his talent, if he had not spent most of his career in the shadow of dopers, and had he taken an approach to his training more sophisticated than putting his finger to the wind and departing in the direction most likely to give him a headwind on the way home. More than focusing his training on GC, what could he do if he focused his training at all?

  8. LD

    @Jim. Do you really think Alberto would be so stupid as to drink the kool aid during this Tour?
    Its ridiculous so suppose he did the same at the Giro as well. (Lest we forget because of the current yellow hoopla, he already won a G.T. much harder than this years Tour) Nobody is under the microscope more than Alberto right now. Given your comment why not accuse Andy S. of the same. (His epic ride could draw comparisons to Landis’s ride) The brothers’ past has drawn suspicion before. I’m also curious as to why everyone one thinks (and use the French as a benchmark for) the French are so clean? Perhaps they are. Perhaps their lack of speed comes as a cultural thing. Even someone such as Hinault has been critical of his countrymen. It was certainly great to see their speed rise though, especially from the tiny Europecar team. At any rate, for me Contador is the most intelligent and gifted stage racer to have come along in a long time. This Tour has been epic and his loss will be a hiccup in his career. As Padraig so eloquently put it in his well written observations he will be back with a vengence. And it’ll take more than two Schlecks to beat him next time around.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Everyone: Thanks for the terrific comments.

      One thing I’d like to say in regard to the Giro: It’s true the course of the Giro was harder than the course of the Tour. I don’t think for a second that the Giro was a harder race overall. There were more strong riders driving the pace at the Tour.

      As to suspicions about Contador, that he recovered to any degree for the final week will make some people suspicious. The tragedy of doping is that because so many great rides have been discredited for doping, people become suspicious the moment someone rides well. Let us not forget the motorized doping of Fabian Cancellara. That one still bugs me. The logical fallacy some people make is that a great victory automatically means doping. And that’s just wrong.

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  10. Elliott @ Austin on Two Wheels

    I loved watching Voeckler and am a huge fan, but does anyone really think he’s a contender for the future? He was the beneficiary of breakaway when people thought he didn’t have the chops to stay in the mountains. Nobody is going to let him do that again which leaves us with someone who is not capable of attacking in the mountains and, yesterday not withstanding, is not a good time trialist.

    I don’t think we’ll see the Eddie Merckx-inspired 60 mile out attacks again. Schleck lost much of his advantage by the end of the stage and things didn’t pan out for Contador. Floyd Landis is the only rider I can think of in recent memory for whom that worked out, and we know now how he achieved that. While it is fun to watch, I think the climbers will probably return to the more calculated blistering attaches on the final climbs. They waste too much energy for too little gain with the long attacks.

    For Andy, I think the Schlecks need to hire managers with better strategic skills. They let Contador stay in contention when they could have knocked him out in week 2. They need to pick which brother is the lead rider and abandon the brothers-in-arms thing or they’ll end up both in the top 5 with nether winning the whole shebang.

  11. Doug P

    Since 2004 I have followed Thomas Voeckler. He may not have won a lot of races, but he has never let me down. He gives 150% every race. He may be far from the most talented racer, but the certain knowledge he has of that fact has never slowed him down, not one bit.
    If not for him, Johnny Hoogerland, and Contador, this year’s Tour could have been a snorefest. Who knows whether Andy would have won if he had raced with as much panache as Voeckler? I was deeply moved by Thomas’ disappointment, but Andy’s not at all. To me they are the opposite sides of the coin, Andy fantastically talented but lacking heart and soul, with Thomas being the opposite. In his interviews, Voeckler displays a depth of character seldom seen among bicycle racers. Bravo Thomas! I will wear my new Europcar jersey with pride.

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  15. bmj

    “Course design should play an interesting role as well. With the ASO’s promise of “interesting” courses in the future, my guess is that all-around skills will become more important. All-around meaning climbing and time trialing, plus descending, the ability to ride in all weather conditions, as well as the ability to ride challenging roads consisting of cobbles or gravel. Wouldn’t it be great to see more Tour contenders riding the classics in order to hone these skills? One can hope.
    I’m looking forward to more!”

    Don’t think the ASO noticed how Sanchez, Evans, and Contador seemed to relish attacking on descents, hilly sprints, and cat 2 climbs. The course designers seem to enjoy making life difficult on certain riders, and I’m sure the Schlecks’ comments about the descents were heard. And Prudhomme was proud of Evans’ ability as an all-arounder. I think we will see more interesting routes in the years to come, and certain riders will need to adapt or stay home.

  16. Souleur

    Great thoughts Padraig.

    This was IMHO one of the most tantilizing Tours in my memory, since ~2001 in my opinion. Daily the top 5 seemed to switch around, the next day had no foregone conclusion, and the first week was tragic.

    Much can be said about the good fortune of Cadel, much could be said about whether all the GC’rs going down and some DNF’ing revealed the true winner or a winner by default. Either way, thats life in my opinion, and kudo to Cadel.

    I personally loved seeing Voeckler’s panache. He has it. He rode above himself, but I hope and pray he realizes something now…that HE can win. He seems possessed and built for the single day spring classics and the early season races but if…and a big IF…if he worked to win the Tour, he may well.

    Next year?? Contador has pledged his attention to this, don’t count Voeckler out, Cadel WILL defend, and then the Schlecks…well, it will be interesting because I see a crowded field, young talent, and a narrow opening for the podium.

  17. Ron

    I too feel the ache. I can’t decide if mine has been made more severe or less due to the fact that I spent most of Le Tour watching…but not riding. Away from home for work and without a bike. Thankfully I’m heading home on Friday, with my trust steeds waiting for me!

    I’m still a relatively new rabid cycling fan so this might be an old condition for some of you, but now my calendar year revolves around major PRO races. The seasons are important too, but not quite as important

  18. Sophrosune

    I was on holiday from Stage 17 to the end so missed those final stages and only read reports and saw some highlights afterwards. I feel like not only is Christmas over but I missed opening the presents.

    As a Contador fan, I watched his progress most closely in this year’s Tour. It was my thought going into this Tour that because of Contador’s exploits in the Giro he would need to gauge everything perfectly for the Tour and have a flawless run to win. He didn’t.

    He lost lost 1:17 to Evans in the first stage and 1:14 to the Schlecks and Voeckler. That 1:14 would have put him past Voeckler for fourth place by 37 seconds and left him 13 seconds short of the podium (which he might have made up as well if is he knee wasn’t bothering him when he loss :23 seconds to F. Schleck).

    A lot of conditionals, but my point is that the only real challengers to Contador were A. Schleck and Evans. With or without the most difficult Giro in recent memory still in his legs.

    I am not sure whether Contador will abandon his Grand Tour double efforts next year, if his acquittal is upheld, especially if the Giro is significantly easier next year with the departure of Zomegnan.

    He’s certainly demonstrated that he is the only rider among the elite that is even remotely capable of achieving such a feat (Ivan Basso won the Giro last year and finished 32nd in the Tour while Evans managed a fifth in the Giro and 26th place in the Tour).

    For all the criticisms of Contador’s riding tactics, it would seem the real loser in this year’s Tour was Andy Schleck, and, at least partly, due to his odd tactical approach to the race. The parcours was perfectly designed for him: A lot of mountain stages and one relatively short ITT. He also had the benefit of an exhausted and time-handicapped Contador as well as having one of the most highly financed teams (more than twice the budget of Saxo Bank) to really push his advantage. But he perplexingly waited for one grand attack in the Alps. Why not push his advantage in the Pyrenees?

    It seems also the Schlecks still have not found a way to overcome their poor time trialing skills, and a more traditional parcours in the upcoming years will only exacerbate that weakness. Barring more time handicaps or accidents, I don’t see what the Schlecks have that can really displace Contador as a perennial Tour favorite.

    Congratulations goes to a smart, albeit short-on-panache, win for Evans. He still strikes me as someone with a rather prickly personality, but maybe this win will lessen that as his winning the World Championship managed to do.

    A final thought about Contador and this Tour. The knee-jerk reaction of some in the media to paint Contador’s defense as empty without having all the facts or evidence and the continued suspicion of nearly every pedal stroke he makes has had its cumulative effect. The returning champion gets boos and whistles and he gets accosted by a spectator dressed up in a doctor’s outfit while making a valiant attack on Alpe d’Huez. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but it is important to recognize what those opinions trigger in others, and, perhaps, most importantly, how firm is the foundation on which your opinions rest.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Sophrosune: Well put. I do agree that Contador rode like a true professional. He maintained his composure throughout the race, even when things were going terribly. You’ll pardon me if that seemed in contrast to his constant bitching about Armstrong and his team in ’09. He animated the race even when he knew he couldn’t win, and to me that was a mark of class; I like how implicitly his riding said “Whoever wins this will have to earn it.”

      Basso might have had a relatively easy ride into the top 10 were it not for Contador’s aggression.

      As to that “fan” in the scrubs who ran up to Contador, I don’t know what he was up to, but that was beyond the pale. The “fans” were way too aggressive this year and I’m thinking it’s just a matter of time before we’re back to another deliberate assault, a la Merckx. That so many years have passed without some terrible assault taking a rider out of contention is no small miracle, but I fear we are on borrowed time with this. My personal opinion is that ASO needs to start placing barriers for the entire length of each final climb. It’s an impossible task, but the crowds are out of control.

      I honestly can’t imagine who has so little life they want to be seen running along a rider and acting like an a**hole.

      Regarding Andy Schleck, I don’t think he “waited” to make that attack in the Alps. Without Francesco Moser in his ear, he’d never have made the attack, which is why Moser was more valuable to this year’s race than Schleck was. The Schlecks lack tactical savvy. If they develop it (and the advice from Moser may pay long-term dividends), they will become formidable. Until then, Schleck is just this generation’s Poulidor.

      For my money, this was a year of courage. We saw it first from Hoogerland. Then we saw it from Voeckler, then Contador, then Andy Schleck and finally Evans. Each of those guys revealed character that we can and should admire.

  19. Sophrosune

    Great coverage again this year, Padraig and Robot. I know I have had some differences of opinion over European peloton but you two have always been thoughtful and provided a perspective lacking in much of the other media.

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