The Cut Off

On any stage of the Tour de France, a rider can be excluded from the race for not finishing within a certain percentage of the stage winner’s time. It’s a cruel way to find out your race is over, a bureaucratic broom wagon letting you know you’re done. In this year’s event, Vasil Kiryienka, William Bonnett, Denis Galimzyanov, and Björn Leukemans fell prey to the clock.

This Tour de France also called time on the career of Alexandre Vinokourov. Past his prime when he returned from a two-year doping suspension, Vino clung to the idea that he could still pull off one last, big win. The Stage 9 crash that hurled him off an embankment and broke the head off one of his femurs told the aging Kazakh everything he needed to know about his future in the cycling game.

Less dramatic in their exits from the pool of potential Tour winners were Levi Leipheimer, Ivan Basso and Christian Vande Velde. All of them strong. All of them great on their day. None of them able to put together enough good days to live the dream. Of the three, only Basso has ever actually won a grand tour, two Giri d’Italia, but will Liquigas bet on Basso for the Grand Boucle again next year, or has the home truth that a pure climber of Basso’s quality can’t win the modern Tour without being able to time trial well (Are you listening Andy?) finally sunk in? Basso will be 34. He won’t be getting faster against the clock. Perhaps the organizers of the Giro will craft a hilly, swan song course for him next  year, but don’t count on it.

Leipheimer was 3rd in the ’07 Tour, and he has a pair of Vuelta podiums to his credit, but at 37 we can now stop talking about his chances to succeed Armstrong as the next American winner. Both he, and Vande Velde for that matter, likely suffered for overlapping with the Texan, never getting quite the support they might have deserved in their strongest years. Vande Velde’s best Tour finish was 4th in ’08, before crashes began robbing him of the biggest race days.

Two other riders now outside the time limit are Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre, both grand tour winners in their prime. Their Geox-TMC squad didn’t merit a Tour invite in 2011, which leaves Menchov 33 and Sastre 36, out to pasture, regardless of who is paying their salaries next year. The Tour waits for no one.

Finally I would offer, perhaps controversially, the Schleck brothers. Many people take it as a given that Andy will, one day, stand atop the podium in Paris, and anything is possible (Just ask Carlos Sastre). But, pure climbers seldom win the Tour de France, Sastre, Pantani, Van Impe, Bahamontes, Zoetemelk. There are few enough that you can name them off the top of your head and explain the odd circumstances that allowed them to win.

Sastre and Pantani stand alone in the modern era when the team concept, centered around defending and neutralizing many stages, led to an ability to win with calculated bursts of aggression rather than three weeks of strong riding. Sastre probably owes much of his ’08 win to the absence of a single dominant rider (a la Armstrong) and the tactical nous of Bjarne Riis. Pantani, a serial attacker, won in the brief space between Indurain and Armstrong, again when there was no one dominant rider to let the peloton know when to chase and when to sit in.

Today, without a strong time trial, that top step can be extremely elusive, though still possible with the right tactics. What is clear from the 2011 race though is that the Schlecks currently lack the tactical acumen to pull it off as well. It is not possible for pure climbers to sit in the pack on a long mountain stage. All applauded when Andy attacked early to put time into all his rivals on Stage 18 to the Galibier, but by then it was too late. He and his brother, who made every elite selection of climbers throughout the race, had already passed up opportunites as Superbesse, Luz-Ardiden and Plateau de Beille.

Rather than looking around to see what Contador, Evans and the rest might be thinking, Schleck ought to have been on the attack early and often. In fact, it wasn’t until a late race consultation with Francesco Moser that Schleck the younger dared to risk showing his hand, which tells you everything you need to know. The Schlecks don’t just lack time trialling ability. They lack courage.

Think back to Liege-Bastogne-Liege when the brothers were off the front with Philippe Gilbert and couldn’t find a way to beat the mercurial Belgian. When you’re two up in the final kilometer, you have to win. Unless you just don’t know how.

To be sure, there is still time for Andy, and even Fränk, but there is a big gap in their skill sets, and time is running out.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Bikelink

    I remember well watching LBL finish and wanting to shout at the screen “attack you fools!” I’m a mediocre cat 4, and even I know you have to do alternating attacks to make the third person keep responding until they can’t (if the third person is really strong and savvy it doesn’t always work, and Gilbert fits that bill, but how can you not try?). I mean…it’s in black and white in Prehn’s book (most cyclists don’t read, present company definitely not included). So they’re strategy was….one of us will beat Gilbert in the sprint (!).

  2. SinglespeedJarv

    This year saw the arrival of a new generation & a suggestion of whom is following them through. The next few years are looking good. Never felt that way during the Armstrong years.

  3. grolby

    There have been hints about Andy’s tactical… let’s say reluctance, since at least last year, when he did not attack Contador until a k to go, when Riis had been telling him to go sooner. He’s clearly afraid to take chances. And while I think he does have the physical capacity to win the Tour, a pure climber can’t do it without taking chances and going on the attack. That attack on Stage 18 was the kind of racing that he needs to do. Maybe he’ll draw a lesson from that.

    That said:

    “Think back to Liege-Bastogne-Liege when the brothers were off the front with Philippe Gilbert and couldn’t find a way to beat the mercurial Belgian. When you’re two up in the final kilometer, you have to win. Unless you just don’t know how.

    I still maintain that reading the Schlecks’ losing LBL as a tactical failure is totally bogus. The only way those boys could have beat Gilbert that day was if you had given them rifles, and even then Gilbert probably still would have beat them. The guy has been unstoppable this season; the fact that they were in the break showed that they did everything right. At the end, they were simply cooked.

    The tactical considerations of one day and stage races are not exactly the same, especially when it’s a three-week grand tour. For whatever reason, it seems to me that the Schlecks are fairly competent in the Classics. They are certainly not geniuses – Gilbert is obviously superior at reading races – but they aren’t useless, either. I don’t know why they can’t put it together in a big stage race, but I think that the argument that they lost to Gilbert because they didn’t race smart enough isn’t at all convincing. For whatever reason, they seem able to put it all on the line in the one day races, but chicken out at the Tour.

    I suppose you could even argue that you don’t come second and third in the Tour by being tactically weak, but come on. The Schlecks got there on the strength of their legs. We did not once see one of them crack in the mountains and lose time. They can take that as a sign that one or both of them isn’t trying hard enough.

  4. Jon

    Whether it is courage or strategy, something is lacking. I have gone from being indifferent about the Schlecks to enjoying seeing them lose. How many times does Andy attack for 50 meters, look over his shoulder and then sit up? To paraphrase Yoda, “Attack or do not attack, there is no try.” Andy may or may not have been able to drop Contador, Evans, etc. but he seems to be content to not commit for a whole stage and then sprint for five seconds at the finish line. Vino certainly had some chemically enhanced flaws, but the guy has balls. Maybe he can loan them to Andy and Frank now that he’s retired.

  5. randomactsofcycling

    I think it’s now a truth that a Pure climber cannot win the Tour. If a Grand Tour is to be truly complete there has to be some Time Trialling. Usually the Tour has two ITTs. Where would the Schlecks have been if that were the case this year? Perhaps an early ITT would have forced them to attack in the Pyrenees? I agree wholeheartedly with Doug P. When does Contador ever look over his shoulder when he goes for it?
    It’s a canny observation about LBL too and I agree that it’s not that the Schlecks didn’t beat Gilbert. Let’s face it he’s been ripping everyone’s legs off all season. It’s that they didn’t appear to try. Do they lack confidence, courage or nous? If their DS was screaming in their ear to attack and they didn’t, well, who’s running the Team?
    @Jon: I hate Vino, but I love your last two sentences.

  6. fausto

    It seems as long as the sisters are together each is thinking that the other is stronger and should get the win and they both get the lower steps of the podium. True champions don’t spend their time looking behind them constantly, they give it all forward. They have radios to get updates. I will give credit for Andy’s long gutsy attack, but he will need to do it and put 5 minutes into the other GC contenders to pad his TT deficit and in these modern times, that just does not happen. Evans killed him in the TT and admitted to letting up the last couple of K’s, a big gap to make up. If you owned the team would you rather have one guy in yellow, or two team mates on the podium? Levi checked out years ago when he talked about how his big goal and ackomplishment was the TOC and not the TDF.

  7. Sophrosune

    I was reminded when discussing the Schlecks’ efforts in this year’s LBL of this video ( chronicling Hincapie’s loss to Domo Frites’ Knaven. At about the 6:10 mark someone says “In professional cycling, when it’s four guys against one, you lose…everytime.” One could argue that two is not four and that no matter what the Schlecks did they weren’t going to beat Gilbert that day. But that doesn’t negate the fact that there is only one strategy in that situation: each one attacks one after another, forcing Gilbert to close the gap each time. THEY DID NOT DO THAT! No matter what you want to call it: lack of courage, lack of tactical acumen, lack of a winning instinct, they are lacking something, and for me, it makes them a really dreary pair of bike riders (not racers).

  8. Souleur

    wow…Robot somebody or something has lit you up.

    Time is ticking, the proverbial clock, and Frank the elder seems the least interested in ever having a GC win under his belt. Truth be told, I thought he entered this years Tour in the finest form I have seen him in his career. Had it not been the anvil tied behind him (the younger) I think Frank may have been liberated, but his task was not to do that, and he carried it out dutifully.

    As for Andy, well, one cannot help be be disappointed. It was HIS shot to win, and one others….Cadel’s and Cadel was spot on. Andy was good, but meek. There was not a moment that Andy chinked the armor of Cadel, Cadel was ready.

    And that I suppose is something one can accept.

    But the thing I really have a problem with is the lack of improvement in their TT skilss….GIVEN you have Spartacus in your midst. I mean, sure, talk to Moser, but what the…you have Spartacus…just the World TT champ on your team, did you not GLEAN anything?? That is something that I suppose made dinner even a little quieter that night, having lost it in a TT.

    They must at least work on it

  9. Wayne

    There are winners that always seem to find or make a way to win and there are great athletes that don’t. The Tour is a race designed to find the difference between the two.

    The wonder of Armstrong’s seven wins is not that he doped, everyone was doping. The wonder is that in seven years no crash, illness or other mishap stopped him. The media attacks, lawsuits, and personal attacks did not distract him. I am amazed at the accomplishment even with the blemishes.

  10. James

    I always had the impression that the Schleck boys want to share with each other too much. It always seems they want to go 1-2 or nothing. I think they would be better riders on separate teams. Until then they won’t win a thing!

  11. grolby

    Sophrosune: the fact that alternating attacks is so absurdly elementary is part why I think accusations of tactical incompetence are very weak explanations of the LBL 2011 result. Although, that said: there are actually a lot of assumptions in the understanding that this is actually the best tactic for the situation they found themselves in, which might be violated.

    I’ve been over the “killer instinct,” “courage,” whatever you want to call it aspect as well, and what my frustration comes down is basically this: this spring’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege is one data point, which has been blown all out of proportion. As I already pointed out, I don’t know that there’s much to point at in the way the brothers have raced the Classics that says anything about how they have approached the Tour de France. In other one day races where they have featured as protagonists, they have raced aggressively and taken chances and come off with some good results, including Frank Schleck’s Amstel win a few years back, and Andy’s LBL win in 2009. Then there was one race this spring in which they did not do what all of the armchair DSs have said they should have done, and this is supposed to be evidence that they lack a fundamental je ne sais quoi. I simply don’t think the way they have tended to race the big one day Classics, taken all together, is relevant to how they have raced for the GC in the Tour de France.

    Surely, everyone here who knows that when it’s two against one you have to trade attacks also must know that sometimes you can’t attack*. That’s the parsimonious explanation for LBL. There’s something else going on when these boys race the Tour de France.

    *For a number of possible reasons, the most obvious one being exhaustion. On top of that, in a 2-1 situation, attacking when you know it won’t work is not actually the best tactic most of the time, however elementary it might appear. We all find attacking, intense racing to be the most exciting to watch, and think less of riders who are less aggressive; unfortunately, that means that what we are inclined to appreciate what is, in many circumstances, stupid racing. On top of that, money matters. Season-long competitions, especially the current points system that effects the financial and sporting future of entire teams, disincentivize the go-for-broke, all-for-nothing racing that we most enjoy and have a significant impact on the most intelligent tactic of the moment. Then there’s the financial benefit of a podium spot vs. fourth place or worse. A rider or DS may not hold all of this in their head when considering what move to make in a hard finale, but sponsors will prefer those who do. There’s a lot more that I could say about this, and this is pretty incoherent already, so I think that’s enough.

  12. Adam

    Grolby, good points and all the armchair quarterbacks never consider that sometimes the legs just say no. Looking at Saturday’s San Sebastian, those who criticise the brothers must also apply the same logic to Barredo, Van Avermaet, Devenyns, Zubeldia, Sanchez and Uran who all found themselves in a small break with Gilbert and failed to collectively work against him to secure teh win.

    1. Padraig

      Everyone: Thanks for the great comments.

      I’ve got one observation to echo Sophrosune’s concerning the Schlecks and L-B-L. In the final kilometers I never once saw them even try to attack Gilbert. I’ve done my share of racing and I know what it looks like when you try to attack and just don’t have the legs. What I saw on the live feed was two guys taking the train to Liege. They even had a conductor to punch their ticket. I fault them for not trying. They didn’t appear willing to risk losing the podium to win, and you must be willing to risk all to win. Yes, it’s but one data point, but its a representative example. When Frank Schleck launched his attack on Luz Ardiden I thought we were seeing a new rider. I was wrong.

      It’s much harder to fault Uran, Zubeldia Barredo and the others at San Sebastian as they were all on different teams. I’m willing to bet that more than one of them got orders not to work too well with the others. When it’s two against one, you’d better try something. When it’s one against six, you’d better be conservative if you can’t be ultra bold.

  13. cwcushman

    I am sad to see Vino go. For being past his prime he still had a very solid last couple of years. He definitely animated the races he was in.

    2009 – Astana
    1st, Chrono des Nations
    1st, Asian Cycling Championships Time Trial
    1st, Stage 3b, Tour de l’Ain

    2010 – Astana
    held pink jersey in Giro (6th overall)
    1st Stage 13 Tour de France
    1st Overall, Giro del Trentino
    1st, Stage 1 (ITT)
    1st, Liège–Bastogne–Liège
    2nd, Clásica de San Sebastián

    2011 – Astana
    1st, Stage 3, Tour of the Basque Country
    3rd Overall, Tour de Romandie
    1st, Stage 3

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