The Unexpected

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


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  1. Wes

    Great post, Padraig. This is why I come here. Totally bummed with Andy’s performance this year, especially that descent. But, I’m also a huge Thor fan, so the bummer-times and awesome-times kind of balance on another out. Plus it’s damned nice to see a French rider in yellow (if not quite as awesome as pulling the yellow jersey on over the WC stripes).

  2. P Poppenjay

    I’ll put 5 bucks on it. Been watching and cheering the Unexpected for days. Love your last paragraph.

  3. Champs

    Ah, the popular “peloton is cleaner” postulate. I’ve been working on that formula, but wherever Hushovd’s mountain stage wins seem to fit, they’re negated by K: the Kolobnev constant.

  4. Jonathan

    The fact that no one can ride away from anyone else and the equalization factor we’re witnessing to me is a clear indicator of cleaner racing. Then again, the fastest average pace when the entire day was gradually uphill is a bit odd.

    While this supposedly cleaner racing is great, I’d say it’s been a bit boring. Would we rather turn a blind eye and enjoy the amazing attack?

  5. randomactsofcycling

    I think there is basis for your hypothesis Padraig. The old ‘two speeds’ theory would certainly explain why there have been no French GC contenders for two generations.
    The top contenders seem no longer to be able to sustain their attacks for anywhere near the length they could previously or attack as often. Certainly, Basso (who only ever intended to dope, but never actually did) does not have the kind of anger in his legs that he displayed before Puerto. And I’m sure someone will disagree with me but even without his bung knee, Contador does not have the same accelerations as he did when he won his first Tour. He didn’t last year either.
    As for THomas, I’m not sure his arrival into Paris in yellow would actually be so good. A guy with a very thin history of stage race success?
    And finally, descending is recognised as a genuine skill. Seriously Andy, complaining the downhill was too dangerous? Let’s all just race uphill shall we.

  6. Adam

    No doubt its a cleaner peleton.
    I’m not ready to dismiss yet the modern day Giro-Tour double. While I was watching the Giro I couldn’t help but wonder why, if AC was planning on doing the Tour as well, he kept insisting on winning so thoroughly. Surely he could have dialed it down a notch in the third week and ‘only’ won by a minute instead of embarrasing the others. He’s effectively paying now for efforts that were not needed

  7. Paul

    I’m expecting Contador to win either the big stage tomorrow to Galibier, or to win on Alpe d’Huez. His adversaries lost a big chance to put time into him in the Pyrenees, and are now paying for it. I would not be surprised to see him on the podium in Paris behind Cadel, perhaps with Voeckler or Frank Schleck in 3rd (although I would rather see Sammy Sanchez there).

  8. cthulhu

    Yes, there is a lot of unexpected stuff going on in the Tour making it exiting every day anew, but Thor’s breakaway victories isn’t that much of a surprise. Two years ago he already attacked on a mountain stage and that might have been the move that secured him green back then. But that already showed his ability to climb, especially since he isn’t pure sprinter anymore. And Garmin’s sprinter is Farrer. And with not so many flat stage for the sprinters it was quite obvious that only escapes on hilly to mountainous terrain will stick. And with his superb descending skills and the need for every rider in the breakaway in the early kilometers that he has a realistic shot at a stage victory, as he proved. But I completely agree on him being a smart rider. On both occasions the break was hard contested and it took very long until one formed, but Thor managed to be in both.

  9. jza

    If the standard of a ‘clean’ peloton is that absolutely nobody is doing drugs, then it will never happen and all antidoping is a waste of time.

    The better standard might be: can clean athletes compete for wins? This year the answer looks to be yes, which is making for some great racing, even if it lacks the fireworks we’ve gotten used to.
    are doing a great job breaking things down. Estimating 5.8w/kg for the Pyrenean climbs. Lemond climbed at 5.7, Indurain 6.3+, Armstrong/Pantani 6.5+. Not enough evidence to convince a statistician, but to a bike racer, the front of the race is unarguably cleaner.

  10. taterboy

    This years tour boring? We must have different definitions. Sensing that this years tour will likely be won on guile and guts has got me paying a lot more attention to the details in this race than any since the 90’s….

  11. Tim Sheedy

    The 2011 Tour de France lacking fireworks? Beyond comprehension. A rider standing up and riding away at will from the best riders in the world who are all genetically similar and who have all done the same training is not fireworks. It’s depressing. This is the most gripping, captivating and thrilling Tour in 20 years.

  12. Michael

    great post, with spot correction of your Google Translate french expression;

    “la tête et les jambes“

    Watching Thor race his way to the contract of his choosing next year was inspiring. Watching Gilbert fly all over the place in week one, then watching him think out loud via his legs trying to decide if he was going for green or going for overall was priceless. Watching Tommy V (one of my favourite riders of the past 10 years, period. long time fan) elevate his game through the sheer power of color is mind-boggling. Watching young guns such as Rolland, Boessen Hagan etc just straight up killing it and lighting up the fireworks on multiple days is refreshing and brings hope.

    Vive le Tour!

  13. velomonkey

    “I find it easier to believe that Basso and Contador are clean than Voeckler is dirty.”

    Best summary I have read thus far. Well done. If Voeckler is dirty, then the sport will really, really suffer. But I’m with you.

    I can’t believe anyone would say this year is lacking – it’s the best tour in like 20 years.

    Totally agree, mad props to Thor – the best man at Voight’s wedding always gets my support.

    I will say this, I have never, ever been a Contador fan. However, this year, given their talk, their riding, their actions – the Schlecks are bigger B!TCHES than Conti ever was or is.

    Evens looks well placed, but isn’t this the way he is supposed to win? Consistent, quiet and drilling it when need be, following when need be and leading when need be. Sure he lacks the panache of Voekler, but he’s a champion nonetheless.

  14. Scott

    This tour has confounded most pundits. Have the Schlecks been foxing earlier on to set up up the surprise breakaway by Andy, with everyone thinking he doesn’t have it in him? Has Cadel been shown to have a good ticker but needs to demonstrate no doubt? It’s high level racing with the kings of sport playing their poker games or not as the case may be. And the Frenchman in yellow – he surprises even himself methinks.

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