Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
And we thought we’d seen surprising riding.
To this point in my life, today’s stage 18 is the single most thrilling single stage of what has already been the single most surprising and dramatic Tour de France in memory.
Lest anyone have harbored any doubts that this was the most exciting and unpredictable Tour de France in a generation, today served as the incontrovertible evidence that we haven’t seen a Tour this wide-open since most of the audience started school. To quantify the number of variables still in play that could determine the final podium of the Tour de France hardly seems possible. I’ll put it in perspective this way: Were this a Hollywood script, the Schleck brothers would be condensed into a single character and Basso and Cunego would have been written out of the storyline in the Pyrenees, along with Contador. Voeckler, Evans and just one Schleck is about the maximum that the average Hollywood script doctor will accept. Tinseltown prefers its conflicts binary, just like football.
Those many storylines are what make stage 18 superior to Greg LeMond’s victory in the final time trial of the ’89 Tour de France (or any other stage of that year’s Tour), Floyd Landis’ reversal-of-fortune ride to Morzine, dare I say, even Lance Armstrong’s 2003 win atop Luz Ardiden on a broken bike.
Armstrong went into that stage with only 15 seconds on Jan Ullrich and 18 seconds on Alexandre Vinokourov. However, The Euskaltel duo of Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo were more than four minutes back and guaranteed to lose boatloads of time in the final time trial, so everyone watching knew there were only three guys who could win the Tour.
Going into today’s stage less than four minutes separated the top eight on GC. By this point in the race, we don’t ordinarily have so many riders seemingly in contention.
Here was the GC this morning before the start:
|Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar||
|Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team||
|Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||
|Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||
|Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi||
|Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard||
|Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre – ISD||
|Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale||
|Tom Danielson (USA) Team Garmin-Cervelo||
|Rigoberto Uran (Col) Sky Procycling||
Of the top eight, only Cunego and Basso really had ceased to be spoken of with the reverent tones reserved for potential victors. Each of the top six were a storyline unto themselves. Voeckler was defying the odds. Evans was riding like a potential winner. Fränk Schleck was the one of Leopard-Trek’s one-two punch. Brother Andy was the whiny but gifted climber who made the threat of his brother so dangerous. Sammy Sanchez was strong, courageous, unpredictable and … willing to work for Contador. And Contador, though he seemed not to be his usual self, was still too strong to be disregarded.
The younger Schleck’s attack may have worked for one simple reason: Contador didn’t have the legs to respond. Had he been stronger, it seems likely he wouldn’t have allowed last year’s bridesmaid to ride up the road, so strong is the rivalry between the two. Following his terrible descending in the rain on stage 15, Schleck did a fair drop down the Col d’Izoard on his way to catching teammate Maxime Monfort; that alone made his attack redemptive.
For years, the GC race at the Tour has been derided because the players wait for the final climb and then attack with everything they have. At last, with Schleck’s attack, we saw an act of courage, where in his own words he was “all in.” Schleck even admitted that the ride could have gone either way
We’ve entered an era where the afterburner attacks must be used rarely and late in the stage, if at all. The question of what we’re left with as options was answered less by Schleck than the old fox, Francesco Moser, who we are told spent some time with the brothers last night. Though Moser never triumphed at the Tour, he knows a thing or two about wily victories.
Can we give Moser some sort of prize for helping to animate the race? In truth, he did little more than remind the Schlecks of how Grand Tours were won during the age of Merckx. Tonight, all the contenders will go to bed seeing this race with new eyes.
It took guts and determination for Evans to tow the shrinking peloton the way he did. It’s an inglorious path to victory, but he has proven he won’t go surrender to anyone. And for those who wonder why he allowed Andy to ride up the road, when he was clearly such a threat, it was the smartest thing he could do with brother Fränk sitting on his wheel. A counterattack by Fränk could have destroyed Evans’ ambitions, which are only currently wounded.
Both Voeckler and Contador have conceded defeat, the latter just this afternoon, the former every day since he donned the jersey. What’s comical here is how we have every reason to believe Contador and zero reason to believe Voeckler. Never in the Tour de France has a rider spoken more derisively of his chances while riding with such determined ferocity. He’s not giving up and the only thing coming out of his mouth that we can trust is carbon dioxide.
Perhaps the most mysterious ride of the day was delivered by Voeckler’s teammate, Pierre Rolland. As the one teammate left in the lead group on the Galibier, he would have been an obvious choice to help Evans with pace making. Based on his one trip to the front, it seemed that he didn’t have the horsepower to help much, but I suspect there was an additional force at work. Should an additional attack have come (that one didn’t says a lot about how infernal Evans’ pace was), Rolland was there to help pace Voeckler back to the leaders. He was the proverbial ace up the sleeve, as proven by the fact that he finished sixth on the stage.
Only 1:12 separates four riders with a classic Alpine stage to go. Unfortunately for Thomas Voeckler, even if he doesn’t lose a second to either Schleck on l’Alpe d’Huez, he is likely to lose at least a minute to Andy in the time trial. Last year Voeckler—with no pride or classification on the line—gave up almost three minutes to Schleck in the final, 52km, ITT. Even if he rides out of his skin on this 41km test, preserving his lead seems unlikely.
That’s a shame. A spot on the podium is an inadequate reward for Voeckler’s revelatory ride, his tenacity, his poker, his leap of faith in himself.
But the real man of the day is Andy Schleck, who presented himself to us today as a man of real courage, a man of daring. Of course, Schleck’s daring is minor when compared to what Contador attempted. If Alberto-freakin’-Contador can’t pull off the Giro-Tour double at the age of 28, with six consecutive Grand Tour wins under his belt, then I say we are unlikely to see it accomplished again. Armstrong knew not to attempt such a sweep. Will this chasten Contador from trying again? And what does this spell for his relationship with Riis?
With three days to go, only one thing seems certain: Whoever stands atop the podium in Paris will have earned our respect on their way to a deserved win.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
On this, the Sunday of the Tour, I’ve been taking stock of the race up until now. The short answer is that this is one of my favorite editions of the Tour in years, probably since the 1990s. I like the Tour best when the race seems wide open, when the obvious drama of the event is how its outcome can’t be guessed by either experts or its newest followers.
To be sure, I think the eventual winner will have the last name of either Evans or Schleck, but that’s three possible outcomes and a bad day by any of them could open the door to Basso, Contador or—gasp—Sanchez or even—double gasp—Voeckler! Jens Voigt observed that Voeckler is riding on credit; few would argue that he hasn’t already overdrawn his account. But while we’ve been waiting for him to fold as any interloper is supposed to do according to the race’s script, he has shown more than mere tenacity. His surges to bring back the likes of Basso and Schleck seemed to irritate Schleck the younger, judging from his elbow waves.
What I saw in Voeckler was a man who will not go quietly, won’t concede that he’s a pretender to the throne. I can’t recall seeing a rider more out of his element ride with greater courage than when Voeckler launched that massive acceleration to go after Basso.
What has surprised me is how many journalists, bloggers and friends have complained of uninteresting and negative racing. Perhaps I was watching a different race. What I saw on stage 14 looked like the sixth round of a ten-round title fight. Each of those attacks would have crumpled mortal riders. Watching for who might attack next and when the attack did come watching for who was slow to respond kept me leaning into the TV and breathless.
We have four mountain stages left. The first two end with descents (yay, I like descents), while the final two end atop hors categorie climbs. Tomorrow’s stage into Gap is one where a breakaway with no-name riders might, finally, work. We’re bound to see some fireworks on the climb to Sestrieres, but it’s unlikely to result in any significant shakeup to the GC. Would could be interesting, though, is the steep descent off of the Cote de Pramartino with less than a half kilometer of flat to the finish. I wouldn’t be surprised if Voeckler punched it on the descent.
Some race fans won’t like it, but the big moves that decide the race will happen on the Galibier on their way to Serre Chevalier. The riders can’t afford to wait for l’Alpe d’Huez to try to blow the race apart. The Col Agnel is, based on my experience, steep enough that many domestiques will be rendered useless long before the race reaches the foot of the Col d’Izoard.
A word on stage 19: It’s as classic a mountain stage as can be devised. Begin the day with a downhill warmup to the foot of the Col du Telegraphe. After 12km of climbing, give them a brief (4km) descent to recover before throwing them at one of the most feared climbs in cycling, the 18km up to the Col du Galibier. Don’t expect a break including any favorites to go there, though. The descent from the top of the Galibier to the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez is nearly 50km and except for the upper portion of the Galibier, it’s not a technical descent; a group can haul ass (that’s a technical term) for le Bourg d’Oisans.
We can forgive the riders if they seem a bit conservative, even tentative. While the stage 14 attacks can’t be called timid, the responses in most cases were an only-as-much-as-necessary effort to keep the opposition in check. With the race this tight, one wrong move could dock you six spots on GC.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Today was an example of precisely why the Tour de France is the greatest annual sporting event on the planet. We had a real bike race. While we couldn’t seem to have a day go without at least one significant crash (Andreas Klöden), the real thrust of the day was the racing not some tangential drama.
The biggest surprise of the day was being reminded that this was Samuel Sanchez’ first Tour stage win. He’s a rider of such colossal talent that a Tour stage missing from his palmares felt a bit like an oversight. Yet his ride was hardly the best of the day.
I’ve secretly had my money on Frank Schleck for this year’s race. I think he has the maturity his brother lacks and this year his form seems at least equal to his brothers, maybe even better. To watch him ride up the road and see the weak response reminded me of the sort of glee I feel when the bad guy gets killed in a horror movie, not that I think Cadel Evans or any of the other GC favorites are bad guys, mind you.
Which naturally brings me to Alberto Contador. It is my sincere hope that his performance today wasn’t hampered by his knee. I respect that a rider beaten is a rider beaten, but my personal belief is that whoever wins the Tour—should it turn out not to be him—deserves to know he beat him straight up.
I’ve suspected that Ivan Basso’s near-anonymous performance up until now was the result of him saving himself. Today’s late-race surge supports that. Seeing him work with Evans to try to pull back time on Schleck with Contador struggling to maintain contact and Schleck the younger dutifully playing the scavenger and just sitting on Contador’s wheel was, pardon me, a thrilling bit of racing.
Nearly as great a surprise as today’s win being Sanchez’ first Tour stage was how little time Thomas Voeckler gave up to Schleck and Evans. It was a stunning piece of racing and gave rise to my favorite performance of the day:
Long after every other team’s last domestique had Roman Candled their legs earlier on the mountain, Rolland not only stuck by his charge, but helped pace him back into the lead group following accelerations that were more than Voeckler could handle. It doesn’t hurt, either, that his service was such that the casual viewer of the Tour wouldn’t appreciate the work he put in, the difficulty of the task he accomplished. The finish line hug between the two was one of those private moments between teammates, not meant for our eyes, even if it did happen on the world stage.
As for the mighty RadioShack, they have two riders in the top 20 on GC. It’s not the sort of performance anyone expected from Johan Bruyneel’s team and probably not the sort of performance that would cause RadioShack to renew their contract at the end of this year.
And what would a day at the Tour without a little more love for Johnny Hoogerland? That he took off on the unknown Horquette d’Ancizan (a climb whose difficulty I can attest to) and attempted to build a gap to gain more points in the king of the mountains competition was the best. I don’t mind that he lost the jersey today; that was inevitable. However, I am bummed he didn’t manage to pick up a single point. I’d have loved the statement that would have made. His attempt was more than enough, though.
When Monty Python and the Holy Grail is finally re-made, Hoogerland will play the knight who says, “It’s only a flesh wound.”
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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)
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
Every cycling site on the planet has postulated some theory about just which rider could conceivably beat Alberto Contador. Naturally, almost no one places much stock in their theories because all indications are that Contador will spend the next three weeks riding at an endurance pace and then making the odd acceleration to dust off his legs … and the competition. As foregone conclusions go, this harkens back to the time of Miguel Indurain when it felt like the other guys rolled up for the prologue hoping, at best, for second. Despite his ongoing dominance, it felt like there was more fight in the air as Lance Armstrong was winning.
Currently, Radio Shack is the only team showing up with anything like a strategy. Their stated game plan of four general classification riders is the right idea. Rather than sending them all up the road in a single shotgun blast, repeated attacks by each of their protected riders has the potential to put a strong rider on the defensive. It’s not possible for one guy to respond to each attack by a group of peers. Eventually you either crack or have to let someone go. Unless you’re Contador. The trouble I see here is that Radio Shack simply isn’t strong enough to deliver enough knockout blows to dislodge Contador from the lead group. Certainly, Contador will get smart to the sequence of attacks and his propensity to launch his own, withering, attack that has the ability to make previous attacks look like accidental surges could easily negate the whole of the Radio Shack team.
To make the us against him strategy work, a combine of teams will be necessary. That’s because even though Leopard-Trek will have two of the strongest riders in the race, the Schleck’s brotherly love will see them try to leave the field together, rather than truly alternate attacks. Their inability to take Philippe Gilbert at Liege-Bastogne-Liege showed their lack of tactical genius necessary to use their numbers to optimal advantage.
To beat Contador, Leopard will have to join with Liquigas and BMC and Euskaltel. This is a climbing Tour and Andy Schleck will have to choose whether he wants to ride for second or see Contador beaten. That’s the choice; for any of the GC favorites, the options are to work with other teams to collectively defeat Contador or resign yourself to racing for, at best, second. Even if the teams come together, the odds that a protected GC rider will win the overall don’t improve any. That’s why such a strategy is unlikely to succeed or even last the whole of the race.
It’s possible, though unlikely, that Contador has overplayed his fitness and won’t be as sharp in the third week as he needs to be. These days, very few riders can be fit enough to win the Giro and then go on to win the Tour. But Contador is at the height of his powers. Still, holding peak form for two months is like creating a balanced government budget—easier said than done. Adding yet another unusual wrinkle to all this is the embattled Spaniard’s decision to go vegetarian for the Tour. We must suppose that his chef has the ability to deliver the balanced diet necessary for Contador to ride well. Still, that does not ensure that his body will necessarily agree with said diet. It’s a big change to make so close to the race. The new diet is conceivably the greatest obstacle he faces.
As a total aside, Contador’s new diet is absolutely his best argument for his innocence I’ve heard. It should have no bearing on the case before CAS, but from the standpoint of a gut-check reaction to the individual, I’m chastened by his declaration.
What I see before us is a mouse smarter than the mouse trap. No one can attack with the paint-peeling acceleration he has and only Andy Schleck has the ability to accelerate as many times in 10k as Contador can. In my mind’s eye I see a flurry of attacks with accelerations that impress us, but followed by a counter-attack by Contador that casts his competitors as Mustangs compared to his Ferrari. “You thought that was fast? Check this out.” We’re all going to need neck braces to deal with his head-tossing speed.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Author’s note: Padraig asked me if I thought there was a previous Tour edition that might have similarities to the 2011 Tour and if a look at the older race might give some insight as to what this year’s race might bring.
The 2011 Tour is a victim of Tour boss Prudhomme’s war on time trialing. With four summit finishes, yet only 42.6 km of individual time trialing and no white-road or pavé stage to lend balance to the race, it is effectively a climbing championship.
That brings to mind the 1976 Tour with it’s back-to-back eight stages of climbing plus a Puy de Dôme hilltop finish. Yes, there were 89 km of individual time trialing in 1976, but that year the mountains overwhelmed everything. Also, it featured a war between the era’s two best climbers, Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien van Impe. Perhaps there is a parallel to 1976’s brutal war in the mountains in the coming match between 2011’s most prominent contenders Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador.
Zoetemelk, the better climber that year, lost the race because of a profound tactical failure in the face of Cyrille Guimard’s brilliant management of van Impe. The only major errors that I can remember Contador committing (I’m sure RKP’s readers will remind me of others) involved his dallying in the back of the peloton and missing important moves. I doubt his new director, Bjarne Riis, will let the Spaniard sleep at the wheel in this Tour.
It may come down to a series of drag races up France’s steepest slopes, but I’m betting that given the likely even match between the two, it will be like 1976 and again come down to the rider with the greater strategic savvy. I believe that plays to Contador’s advantage.
Like Tour father Henri Desgrange wrote, it’s head and legs.
Eddy Merckx started 1976 by winning Milan–San Remo for a seventh time. He also won the Catalonian week. But that was it for Merckx in the win column for spring in 1976. He managed a second place in the Tirreno–Adriatico stage race, but only sixth place in Paris–Roubaix and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. In the Giro, he came in eighth. Not able to find his usual form and needing surgery for saddle-sores, he did not enter the 1976 Tour. There would be no rematch between Bernard Thévenet and Eddy Merckx that year.
There were plenty of other fine young cannibals, however. Bernard Thévenet went to the Tour fresh off a win in the Dauphiné Libéré. Luis Ocaña, looking for another shot at glory, had come in second in the Vuelta and fourth in Paris–Nice.
Joop Zoetemelk was the odds-on favorite. He won Flèche Wallonne and had high placings in the Dauphiné Libéré, Amstel Gold and the Tour of the Mediterranean. He had been second in the Tour in 1970 and 1971 and had never finished worse than fifth.
Every Tour is different. Each year the cast of players changes slightly as older racers retire and new young men with fresh ambitions arrive. The route changes each year as well and with differing emphasis on flat roads, time trials or mountains, different racers can find some years suit their talents more than others. The 1976 Tour was clockwise, starting on France’s west coast, circling north up to Belgium before heading south for the Alps. There the 1976 Tour departed from tradition. Normally after one of the 2 major mountain ranges is ridden there are several transition stages before the hard climbing resumes. This year there were 5 days of climbing in the east, starting in the Vosges in stage 7 and ending in stage 11. Then there was a rest day before 3 very hard days in the Pyrenees. That was 8 days in a row of mountains. If that weren’t enough, stage 20 finished at the top of the Puy de Dôme. Importantly, 5 of the mountain stages ended with hilltop finishes. This is a huge advantage to smaller riders who don’t have the power to maintain a time advantage gained on a climb through a long descent and flat roll-in to a distant finish line. No wonder Lucien van Impe announced that he would be riding this Tour for the overall win, not his usual King of the Mountains title. Van Impe’s changed circumstances involved more than just having a race itinerary that matched his talents. His previous manager was Jean Stablinski who is often credited with having one of the finer tactical minds in cycling. Stablinski was replaced with Cyrille Guimard who had mounted a real threat to Merckx in the 1972 Tour. Guimard was so recently retired that he was still the 1976 French Cyclocross Champion. In taking over the Gitane-Campagnolo team he remade the squad so that van Impe would have better support. As we’ll see in unfolding years, Guimard not only knew how to ride and win his own race, he knew how to get others to ride and win for him.
There was a new comet in the heavens. Belgian racer Freddy Maertens turned professional in 1972. His fantastic sprinting, time trialing and overall strength let him win all but the steepest races. In 1976, the first year he rode the Tour, he won 54 races including the World Pro Road Championships and the Belgian Road Championships. His erratic career was at its peak in 1976 and 1977 before it fell off to almost nothing. Then, in an astonishing act of will, he rebuilt his career and won the 1981 World Championship.
Maertens did not disappoint Belgian fans who were unhappy with the absence of Merckx. From the gun he was on fire. He won the Prologue time trial thumping a monstrous 55 x 12 gear, and then the first stage. Then he won the stage 3 time trial, beating such accomplished chrono men as Ferdi Bracke by 2 minutes, 23 seconds, Raymond Poulidor by almost 3 minutes and Bernard Thévenet by 3 minutes, 32 seconds. When the Tour entered the Vosges mountains he won stage 7. In stage 8, he managed only second to Peugeot’s ace sprinter Jacques Esclassan.
With the riders poised to begin their days in the Alps in stage 9, the General Classification stood thus:
1. Freddy Maertens
2. Michel Pollentier @ 2 minutes 4 seconds
3. Hennie Kuiper @ 3 minutes 16 seconds
4. Jean-Pierre Danguillaume @ 3 minutes 23 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 3 minutes 31 seconds
Van Impe, Zoetemelk and Thévenet were sitting at about 4 minutes behind Maertens.
Stage 9 was 258 kilometers that had the pack ascend the Luitel before finishing at the top of l’Alpe d’Huez, the first hilltop finish there since 1952. Even sprinter Freddy Maertens made it over the Luitel with the good climbers. But when Peugeot rider Raymond Delisle opened the hostilities on the Alpe, Maertens was tossed. From then on Zoetemelk and van Impe attacked and counter-attacked each other all the way to the top with Zoetemelk getting the win by 3 seconds. Poulidor, Thévenet, Baronchelli, Kuiper and the others were what a modern military man would call “collateral damage”. They were incidental victims of a relentless shooting war between the 2 best climbers of the time. The result of the day’s brawl was that van Impe was in Yellow with Zoetemelk trailing by only 8 seconds. Maertens was third, down about a minute.
The next day was another mano-a-mano climbing fight between the 2 leaders. After ascending the Lautaret, the Izoard, and the Montgenèvre, Zoetemelk was again only able to beat van Impe and Thévenet by 1 second. Zoetemelk now trailed van Impe by only 7 seconds in the Overall. The pace was so hard 7 riders were eliminated for failing to finish within the time limit.
The third mountain stage was one of those races in which the peloton just doesn’t feel like racing. They let José-Luis Viejo ride away without being chased. His final margin of victory, 22 minutes, 50 seconds, was the Tour’s largest postwar solo winning margin. The peloton was content to rest their tired legs. Indicative of the slower pace, sprinters Gerben Karstens and Freddy Maertens took second and third places.
With the Alpine stages completed, here was the General Classification:
1. Lucien van Impe
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 7 seconds
3. Raymond Poulidor @ 1 minute 36 seconds
4. Bernard Thévenet @ 1 minute 48 seconds
The first stage in the Pyrenees, the fourth mountain stage, was another odd day. Van Impe and Zoetemelk were only worried about each other. They kept an eye on each other and let Raymond Delisle, an excellent but slightly aging racer, get away. Delisle was eighth in General Classification when the stage started. When it was over, Delisle was in Yellow and van Impe and Zoetemelk were almost 3 minutes behind.
The next stage didn’t affect the standings. The big guns held their fire. The only notable event was that stage winner Regis Ovion failed his drug test and his name was stricken from the record of that stage. Willy Teirlinck was awarded the stage.
It was stage 14, the fifth of these mountain stages, that made history.
In previous Tours, van Impe had won 3 of his eventual 6 Polka-Dot Climber’s Jerseys, in the same fashion as modern riders Laurent Jalabert or Richard Virenque have done it. They would go out early on a mountain stage and scoop up the points in all the early mountains, not always worrying about getting caught and dropped on the final climb by the men seeking overall victory. The Polka-Dot Jersey was generally van Impe’s entire ambition. In later years he has said that he regrets those years in which he turned to trying for the overall victory. He thinks he might have had 10 Climbers’ Jerseys instead of his 6.
There were 4 major climbs that day. On the second, the Portillon, Luis Ocaña attacked. Ocaña was no longer the dominating rider he had been in the early 1970s, but he was not to be ignored. Cyrille Guimard, van Impe’s director, told van Impe to go after him. Van Impe was reluctant: Guimard and van Impe did not completely agree on tactics and goals that year. Guimard told van Impe that if he didn’t go after Ocaña, he would run him off the road with his car.
Van Impe took off and caught Ocaña on the Peyresourde, the day’s penultimate climb.
Zoetemelk didn’t chase him. He may have thought van Impe was chasing some Climbers’ points and not really going after the overall lead. And surely by now Ocaña was nothing more than a shell of his former self. Instead Zoetemelk sat on the wheel of the man whose Yellow Jersey was threatened by the attack, Raymond Delisle. Normally this would be an astute strategy, forcing the leader to defend his position. It would have been astute except that Delisle could not close the gap. In fact, Delisle was exhausted and eventually lost over 12 minutes that day. Up the road, van Impe and Ocaña were flying.
Ocaña did the hard work on the flat road leading to the final climb, towing van Impe. Ocaña remembered that Zoetemelk had never helped him in his struggles with Merckx. This was a tough bit of pay-back.
On the final climb, the Pla d’Adet up to St.-Lary-Soulan, van Impe jumped away from Ocaña and won the stage and the Yellow Jersey. Zoetemelk came flying up the hill, going faster than van Impe, but it wasn’t good enough. He was 3 minutes, 12 seconds too late.
The Ocaña/van Impe/Zoetemelk attacks shattered the peloton. 45 of the remaining 93 riders finished outside the time limit. Peter Post, the manager of the Raleigh team asked on behalf of the riders that the Tour management waive the elimination rule for the stage. They did.
The new General Classification with van Impe back in Yellow:
1. Lucien van Impe
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 3 minutes 18 seconds
3. Raymond Delisle @ 9 minutes 27 seconds
4. Walter Riccomi @ 10 minutes 22 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 11 minutes 42 seconds
The final day in the Pyrenees, even with the Aspin, Tourmalet and the Aubisque, didn’t change the top of the standings. The lions had to digest their kill.
The stage 17 time trial showed that van Impe was a more rounded rider than one might expect. Ferdi Bracke won it but van Impe was able to beat Zoetemelk by more than a minute. That put Zoetemelk 4½ minutes behind the Belgian climber with only one more chance to take the Tour leadership, the stage 20 climb to the top of Puy de Dôme. Zoetemelk won the stage, beating van Impe by an unimportant 12 seconds. Impressive, but to no real effect. That moment of careful, conservative calculation on the road to St.-Lary-Soulan cost him the Tour. Zoetemelk was the better climber that year, but van Impe had the tactical genius of Guimard to give him the needed push.
Thévenet had been losing time and at stage 19 he finally abandoned, weakened by hepatitis.
Lucien van Impe won the Tour, beating Zoetemelk by 4 minutes, 14 seconds. It was his only Tour victory and he remains the last Belgian to win the Tour. To this day, he is troubled by Guimard’s remarks that van Impe would not have won the Tour without his encouragement and threats. Van Impe says that Guimard talked to him as if he were a child, and after the 1976 season, van Impe changed teams.
Freddy Maertens won 8 stages in the 1976 tour, equaling the record set by Charles Pélissier in 1930 and Merckx in 1970 and 1974.
And Raymond Poulidor? He finished third, 12 minutes, 8 seconds behind winner van Impe. This was the fourteenth and final Tour de France for the 40-year old Poulidor. He abandoned only twice and finished with 3 second and 5 third places. In all those years of riding the Tour from 1961 to 1976 he never spent a single day in Yellow, not one. Poulidor’s 8 times on the podium is a record. Zoetemelk, Hinault, Ullrich and Armstrong each accumulated 7, and Anquetil, Merckx and Garrigou 6.
Celestino Vercelli, riding with G.B. Baronchelli, Walter Riccomi and Wladimiro Panizza on the SCIC-Fiat team, talked to us about the 1976 Tour: “This was the year the Cannibal Eddy Merckx stayed home. This Tour was won by van Impe. Every stage of this Tour was very, very hard. Just to get an idea of the difficulties we faced, in Bordeaux, in incredibly hot weather, we raced 3 stages the same day. In the evening in the hotel (hotel is a big word for the place we stayed), we slept in big rooms together. I was running a high temperature, I was very tired and hot. I don’t have words for that day on the bike.
“When we were riding the Pyrenean stages, the asphalt melted. You can imagine the huge difficulties we faced riding in the mountains in the soft asphalt. In the descent the situation was better with the tires holding the soft road very well. The big problem was the difficulty in removing the asphalt from our legs in the evening.”
Final 1976 Tour de France General Classification:
1. Lucien van Impe (Gitane-Campagnolo): 116 hours 22 minutes 23 seconds
2. Joop Zoetemelk (Gan-Mercier) @ 4 minutes 14 seconds
3. Raymond Poulidor (Gan-Mercier) @ 12 minutes 8 seconds
4. Raymond Delisle (Peugeot) @ 12 minutes 17 seconds
5. Walter Riccomi (SCIC) @ 12 minutes 39 seconds
1. Giancarlo Bellini: 170 points
2. Lucien van Impe: 169 points
3. Joop Zoetemelk: 119 points
1. Freddy Maertens: 293 points
2. Pierino Gavazzi: 140 points
3. Jacques Esclassan: 128 points
Excerpted from Bill and Carol McGann’s The Story of the Tour de France, Volume II. You can find both volumes here.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
For all the talk of Eurobike vs. Interbike for the place to introduce cool products, let’s face it—many of the coolest new products that enter the world during a given year do so at the world’s greatest annual sporting event: le Tour.
I just got a heads-up on a new bike coming down the pike. I’m sure it’ll be in bike shops by the time there’s too much snow on the ground for most of you to ride. Sorry ’bout that, but it’s not our call.
The subject of the photo above is from the outside of the drive-side chainstay of what I’m told will be Alberto Contador’s primary bike at this year’s Tour de France. Before you come to the conclusion that Contador will be riding a McLaren Venge at the Tour, I think we’re being told something different.
[UPDATE] I just received confirmation from Specialized that the above shot is, in fact, a Tarmac SL4 built for Specialized by McLaren.
Contador has elected to ride the lightest equipment he can generally choose within the confines of sponsorship. He chose to ride Zipp 202s at the Giro even though they had other wheels that were not significantly heavier yet were stunningly more aerodynamic. He’s not going to ride a Venge most days.
Specialized updates one of its road bikes every year. Last year they introduced the Roubaix SL3, meaning this is a year for an update to the Tarmac. We’ll see a Tarmac SL4 at the trade shows. I believe this shot is of what will be a very limited production of McLaren-produced Tarmac SL4s. If you’re wondering just how different a standard Tarmac SL4 could be from a McLaren one, consider this: A standard Venge frame requires about 6 hours to produce. Its layup schedule, that is, the manual with all the instructions on which pieces of carbon go where, is 60 pages, a whopper by most standards. The McLaren Venge, by comparison, takes 20 hours to produce and requires a 140-page manual.
That’s why the McLaren bike runs $20k.
As layup schedules get more complicated a bike can do more things. Because material placement and orientation is everything in carbon fiber, these ultra-complicated layup schedules result in bikes that can be both more stiff in torsion and—yes, I promise—more compliant vertically. It requires the techs to vary the orientation of layers by 45 degrees when maybe the layers might all be oriented the same direction, that sort of thing. It’s unlikely the McLaren bike differs much in weight from what we’ll soon call the standard Tarmac SL4, but I anticipate it could feel more responsive and more comfortable. It may also be stronger in crashes.
I’m riding a Tarmac SL3 right now, and it’s hard for me to imagine this bike being improved upon by a significant degree. That’s probably why I’m not a product manager; I’d have called it a day after this thing.
We’ll learn more about the new Tarmac SL4 soon. So far, what I’ve been told is that the bike has received an upgrade to the layup, what is being called FACT 11R. The head tube has been changed some as well; we’re told to improve torsional stiffness while increasing vertical compliance. They claim it is lighter as well. They’ve actually reduced the diameter of the head tube; the lower bearing is only 1 3/8″ now. The bottom bracket has been integrated with the chainstays for a stronger, lighter one-piece construction. Other features include hollow carbon dropouts, internal cable routing and more widely spaced seatstays for improved lateral stiffness.
When I was 10 or 12, my mother assembled a synergy of coupons so powerful that our local supermarket paid her nearly a buck to take home two 4-lb. jars of grape jelly. For the next two years every time I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich it was accompanied by grape jelly.
As an adult, I still eat PB&J, but in my refrigerator you’ll find preserves of strawberry, raspberry, blackberry and sometimes, even cherry. I have never purchased grape jelly.
The only thing in the world I’m as sick of as grape jelly is news of doping, so I’m going to try to keep this brief, but I need to address some recent quotes by David Millar.
I think Millar is a stand-up guy. He’s got my respect. When caught, he manned up and took his lumps. He seems to have a much less materialistic and more mature and empathetic life post-suspension. I dig that.
He speaks out about doping issues and particular dopers. I double dig that.
However, he was quoted in the Telegraphe regarding Alberto Contador’s performance at the Giro, saying things that simply don’t make sense. So nonsensical they are that I honestly have been wondering if he has some odd, covert agenda in mind. If true, it’d wreck my opinion of him. For good.
And let me hasten to add, this really has very little to do with Contador. Any rider who delivers a performance such as he did at the Giro and looks that fresh standing on the podium (does anyone recall how wasted LeMond always looked on the podium at the Tour?) shouldn’t expect to escape suspicion.
Here’s what Millar told the Telegraphe:
“Alberto Contador is untouchable as rider, he is a physical freak and we in the peloton have known that for a long time and respect his supreme talent. I would be very surprised if he didn’t end up as the greatest Grand Tour rider in the history of the sport. It’s a tragedy that he has got mixed up in this Clenbuterol thing but I am keeping an open mind on his case.”
“Does anybody out there seriously doubt that Contador was riding clean in the Giro d’Italia that has just finished? You don’t win the biggest races in the world with such clockwork regularity and comparative ease, and in such style, by not being the supreme talent and clean. In my experience the profile of a doper is always much more erratic and unpredictable.”
“The rest of us mere mortals have “magic days” when every so often when we can take on the world. Contador’s default setting is a “Magic day”. His only departure from the norm is when he experiences merely an average day. They are the only two levels he rides at. My strong instinct is to trust that.”
Let’s do this like a geometry problem and lay out our givens:
1) Oxygen vector drugs speed recovery and all but eliminate bad days.
2) Anabolic agents such as testosterone also speed recovery. Faster recovery = fewer bad days.
3) Gianni Bugno led the 1990 Giro start-to-finish. A strong case can be made that this was the first Grand Tour win courtesy of EPO. Pink from start to finish indicates no bad days.
4) If we assume that the various allegations against Armstrong are true, seven victories at the Tour suggest he had no bad days (except for a couple of bonks).
5) Before the age of oxygen vector doping we frequently saw riders deliver a spectacular day at a Grand Tour and follow it up with a stunning fold.
Millar has expressed doubts about Ivan Basso’s 2006 Giro d’Italia win, where he finished more than nine minutes ahead of Jose Enrique Gutiérrez. Is he suggesting that nine minutes is superhuman, but six minutes (Contador’s margin of victory) is merely mortal?
Everything we know about human physiology says that even when you’re at peak form you can’t ride around at threshold for six hours a day for three weeks. Everything we know from our own lives tells us we have bad days, even when we’re not on the bike. Bad days are a normal part of life.
It is within human nature to want to be our best on every ride. We often ride like we believe it’s possible. It’s a hell of a statement of hope. I like that. However, if someone tells you that a rider’s default setting is magic, get out your shovel. That’s not mud around your ankles.