It might be that turning one’s attention to the Tour de France in July is inevitable for the dedicated cyclist. If it’s July, we’re watching the Tour. So being among other cyclists for me means conversations that are as likely to include talk of the Tour as they are talk of the weather.
The conversations are different this year, as compared to other years. This is the first Tour in the wake of USADA’s Reasoned Decision, the first Tour since Tyler Hamilton’s “The Secret Race,” the first Tour since the fall of Lance Armstrong. As a result the viewing public no longer seem to be willing to watch with the general belief that the peloton is clean, that we can watch first and worry about positive tests if or when they turn up. We seem to be asking questions first and watching second.
And of course, the question on everyone’s lips is whether the yellow jersey is clean. It may be that Chris Froome is clean. It may be. However, we, the cycling fans that watch the Tour, are unsure what to believe. The old practice of accepting a rider as clean until a positive test has burned us badly. So while UCI head Pat McQuaid loves to tout just how much better the testing is now than it was when he assumed the office of the president. That may be, but if you’re injured in a car accident, the surgeon asks himself not whether the bleeding is less, but whether the bleeding has stopped. Imagine a doctor coming to you and saying, “Good news, you’re bleeding much less today.”
McQuaid just doesn’t understand that’s not acceptable. We don’t want a pretty clean sport, we want a clean sport. Reasonable people will understand that some riders will always cheat, always seek a shortcut to glory. The assurance we need is that the sport’s governing body is doing all they can to pursue a clean sport. It’s apparent that for many years the UCI has simply wanted the appearance of a clean sport, and this distinction helps to explain why in 2010 the UCI waited until October to reveal that Alberto Contador had tested positive at the Tour de France.
Following the stage 11 time trial, Froome has a lead of 3:25 over Alejandro Valverde. But within a minute of Valverde are Bauke Mollema, Alberto Contador, Roman Kreuziger and Laurens Ten Dam. Froome’s gap begs questions in this era. In watching the coverage we’ve seen how he amassed his gap, but we’re asking not how he got his gap, but what allowed him to get his gap.
The tragedy here is that Froome is being painted with a doper’s brush even though he’s never tested positive. Sure, we can talk about his third-fastest ascent of Ax 3 Domaines, but he’s not new to climbing with stunning talent in a Grand Tour. If Froome goes on to win the 2013 Tour, the ineffectiveness of the UCI will have cheated the rider of his deserved glory and us of the enjoyment of watching a true champion crowned.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
My takeaways from the first week of the 100th Tour de France are as follows: 1) Corsica is beautiful, and despite the narrow, nervous, crashy, not-altogether-organized nature of the opening stages there, I need to put it on my “Places I Need to Ride My Bike” list; 2) As always, there are some tough sons-a-bitches in that peloton, including three of my favorites, Ryder Hesjedal, Ted King and Geraint Thomas; and 3) the sprint competition is going to be more fun to watch than usual, with Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, Peter Sagan, Simon Gerrans and Mark Cavendish all taking sprint wins (and intermediate points) through the first week.
When you toss in that Daryl Impey has just become the first African to wear the yellow jersey, it is hard to argue that this version of the Grande Boucle lacks for drama, grit and flair.
You will note that I have not yet even mentioned the GC competition (Impey is in yellow, but he is not in the GC mix). On that score, rather than attempting anything resembling expert prognostication, a task better left to the right honorable Pelkey and/or his Irish partner in crime, I will only say that Nicolas Roche, Roman Kreuziger, Alejandro Valverde and a whole gaggle of Garmins are still comfortably within touching distance of the top.
That means, to me, that weeks two and possibly three will have more real players involved in the struggle for the jaundiced shirt than past iterations of this race have allowed. So that’s cool.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what is the story of this Tour for you so far? What are the surprises? What magic is yet to come? Take this wherever you want, the Tour does not submit itself to easy reduction. We could, quite possibly, talk about this all day. So start now.
It feels strange to even speak of it after so long, but you know what? Professional road racing is about to start happening again. Rising up from the ashes of the Lancepocalypse, spindly legged racers are due to crawl out from under their off-season rocks, emerging into the blinking light of the 2013 season.
What’s gonna happen?
The Classics, perhaps the least dope-tarnished races of the calendar, will once again give us the Boonen v. Cancellara races we all want to see, assuming Fabian Cancellara has killed whatever chicken he needed to to dispel the voodoo curse that ruined his 2012. We should also see the return of Thor Hushovd to the rutted cart paths of Northern Europe and find out just how serious Peter Sagan is about mixing it up with these infernal cobblers.
The first question of this week’s Group Ride is who will be this year’s Classics star? Can Boonen thrive with Cancellara in the mix, or will someone else rise to the challenge?
Stage racing, if we’re honest, is more of a shit show. TdF champ Bradley Wiggins is talking about skipping the July race in favor of the seemingly more favorable Giro, which puts Chris Froome in the captain’s seat for Sky. Alberto Contador is back in full swing. Purito Rodriguez showed his class last season, but will his team even make the races? And what of the Schlecks? The younger is coming back from an injury-blighted 2012, and the older will probably be suspended.
The second question for this week’s Group Ride mirrors the first. Who will be this year’s Grand Tour star? Can Ryder Hesjedal repeat his Giro heroics? Can any of 2012′s bit part players, Thomas de Gendt, Alejandro Valverde or Vincenzo Nibali, take another step up the podium?
It feels odd to me to be talking about these things. It feels as though some great schism occurred at the end of 2012, and that the future can’t be quite like the past. All I know how to do, at this point, is to look at what’s happened and wonder what will be, and hopefully, in the process, it will all be as fascinating as ever, if only that little bit better.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Where I live it will be 95°F today, but looking to the weekend and next week the days and evenings, will be getting cooler. Already some of the leaves are starting to lose their chlorophyll, beginning to go yellow or red at the edges. The company I work for is preparing for 2013. There is brochure copy to write. The season is winding down. This might all be a beat or two early, but…
On the roads of Northern Spain, especially the steep ones, the Vuelta is at full tilt, the battle lines drawn, the GC shaking out slowly. It wasn’t long ago that many of us argued over whether Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) or Chris Froome (Team Sky) would win this race. Purito Rodriguez (Katusha) apparently isn’t a regular RKP reader. Otherwise, he might have clued us in to his intention to win his home Grand Tour.
If you have been following closely, you will know what surprises this race has offered up. You would have seen the likes of Froome clinging to wheels. You would have seen Contador attacking with his signature explosiveness but not able to close the deal. You would have seen Rodriguez ride the time trial of his life to keep the jersey on his shoulders.
Perhaps it is still early to cast judgement. The top 5, which includes Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), are all within 3 minutes of one another. How many lead changes and plot twists we have in front of us is almost impossible to tell.
But, the excitement of the Vuelta, and some recent comments about the Tour, got me thinking about just which of the Grand Tours I’ve enjoyed most this season. Ryder Hesjedal’s big Giro win was fun to watch and featured plenty of back and forth with Rodriguez as well as Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD). The Tour, by some estimations, disappointed, with Team Sky managing every last detail to perfection. Still, the Tour is the Tour, a tautology that means something to most race fans.
So, though it might be early, this week’s Group Ride asks the simple question: Which was the best Grand Tour this year? And why?
Observers at the 67th Vuelta a España may be premature in writing off the chances of Great Britain’s Chris Froome. They say that in the 11 stages that remain he won’t be able to withstand the attacks of his three Spanish rivals, former Vuelta winners Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, and this year’s Giro d’Italia runner-up Joaquim Rodriguez. Froome faces a stiff task, and history does show that it’s very difficult for a foreigner to beat the Spanish on their own turf, but if anyone can succeed it’s the talented 27-year-old Englishman raised in Kenya and South Africa.
At the 2011 Vuelta, Froome just lost to the upstart Spaniard Juanjo Cobo, who held a tiny lead over Froome, never more than 20 seconds, over the final week—partly thanks to the tacit help of the other home teams. That “assistance” was far more pronounced a quarter-century ago when the last Brit to get close to victory at the Vuelta, Scottish climber Robert Millar, was runner-up to Spanish riders in both 1985 and 1986.
I was fortunate (if that’s the right word) to witness Millar’s unbelievable (that is the right word) loss to Spaniard Pedro Delgado at the ’85 Vuelta. Millar had ridden a great Vuelta and strong final time trial and was the solid race leader starting the final stage. My story of that sensational stage is too long to reproduce here, but it suffices to say that Delgado began that May day in the climbs north of Madrid in fifth place overall more than six minutes behind the Brit, and that a combination of bad weather in the mountains (cold rain, hail and wet snow), poor team direction, fatigued teammates, lack of time checks and a blatant coalition of Spanish teams handed the stage win to local rider José Recio and the final victory to Delgado after a long, two-man breakaway.
Race organizing, team structures and information technology have changed enormously since those days, but partisanship and collusion among friends can be just as pronounced as they were when Millar twice lost the Vuelta to intrinsically lesser riders. As Froome said on Monday’s rest day this week: “Since the start, my competitors haven’t given me any gifts and I don’t expect to get any.”
Besides the strong opposition he’s facing, Froome could be suffering from race overload after the Tour de France (where he was second to Sky teammate Brad Wiggins), and the London Olympics (where he raced to a standstill in the road race and medaled in the time trial). As evidence of his fatigue, critics point to moments of weakness that Froome experienced on each of the two summit finishes over the weekend. But a closer look at his and his three Spanish rivals’ performances through the Vuelta’s first week reveals a potentially different story.
Last week’s uphill finishes seemed sure to give an early verdict on who would be the strongest contenders, but there were other factors at play: a 100-degree heat wave blanketing northern Spain, fierce crosswinds on the plains preceding the climbs, the varying strengths of the teams at this ultra-mountainous Vuelta, and the psychological states of the top candidates for victory—notably Alberto Contador.
All of Spain is hoping that Contador can put his controversial two-year drugs ban behind him and win this first Grand Tour since his suspension ended earlier this month. With the expectation of a nation and the need to prove himself, Contador was clearly anxious on the initial summit finish last Monday. His frenetic, out-of the-saddle accelerations up the ruggedly steep 5.5-kilometer Alto de Arrate resembled his pre-suspension climbing style, but the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team leader couldn’t shake the opposition even with a half-dozen attacks.
The anxious Contador tried again the next day on the steepest (early) section of the 13-kilometer Valdezcaray climb. This time, just Froome and an ambitious Nicolas Roche were able to go with him; but it was an injudicious tactic given the unfavorable winds blowing on the upper, less-steep slopes. In the past, Contador wouldn’t have been so impetuous. He would have planned his attacks more meticulously and, on each of those stages, he would have needed just one sharp acceleration to leave the rest in his wake.
Anxiety to please the public was one part of the Spanish superstar’s failure to win on the early summit finishes, but poor team tactics and the debilitating temperatures were just as important in his significant loss to Rodriguez and Froome to the stage 6 finish at Jaca. Contador made four of his Saxo teammates race flat out on the downhill approach to Jaca, but as soon as the climb began he started cramping and realized he’d played into his rivals’ hands.
Showing immense determination, Team Sky’s two Colombian climbing prodigies, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, raced so fast on the short, switchback climb to Jaca’s ancient fortress that Valverde later described it as more like the finish of a sprint stage! When the two Colombians peeled away to launch Froome on a final-kilometer charge, neither Valverde nor Contador could follow the pace. Only Rodriguez stayed on the Brit’s wheel, and then out-sprinted him for the stage win, earning him the 12-second time bonus and the leader’s red jersey.
Froome and his Sky cohort attempted to replicate their Thursday tactics on Saturday’s much tougher stage finish on the 5,085-foot (1,550-meter) Collada de la Gallina in the Pyrenees of Andorra. At 7 kilometers, it was twice as long as the one at Jaca, but Sky’s team director for the Vuelta, Marcus Ljungqvist, gave Henao and Uran the same orders to raise the pace from the start of the climb. So when the Colombian pair had done their damage and gave way to an attack by Froome, he still had the hardest part of the climb to complete: 3 kilometers tilting up gradients as steep as 15 percent.
Froome had never seen the climb before and that lack of knowledge worked against him more than his alleged fatigue. When he accelerated, only Contador followed him, while their two rivals held back. The Katusha team’s Rodriguez is a resident of the Catalan region and spends much of his year in Andorra and knew the Gallina climb intimately; and he told his friend and Movistar team leader Valverde that the pace was too high to maintain all the way to the line.
That was confirmed when Froome couldn’t get Contador to help him and the Brit virtually sat up before the multi-time Tour winner counterattacked in his former style. Contador’s Saxo team boss Bjarne Riis believed that Contador was going to win the stage, but even the Spanish phenom struggled at the end, shifted down and tried to spin his way to the finish, only to be overtaken just before the line by the more patient and stage-savvy Valverde and Rodriguez.
Froome was the victim that day of his poor team tactics (would they have been better if Sky’s top sports director Sean Yates was present?), the work he’d done unnecessarily to help Sky sprinter Ben Swift on the flat stages, and his rivals’ connivance. “The climb was really hard,” Froome later said, “and this battle against three such strong rivals was incredible.” But does he think he’s riding against a coalition of the Spanish trio and their teams? “I don’t think about a fight against the three,” he said, “but a fight against three weeks. To do two grand tours [back to back] is a new experience for me.”
Perhaps it was not knowing his physical limits of racing constantly at such a light level, or simply not knowing the course layout, that saw Froome have a hard time staying with the front group on Sunday’s tricky stage finish above the Mediterranean port of Barcelona. Barcelona is the hometown of race leader Rodriguez, so after Contador made the mistake of jumping too early on the little Alto de Montjuic hill 4 kilometers from the line, Rodriguez waited until a steeper, narrow section to counterattack, which only BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert could answer. Those two combined forces on the fast descent and then sprinted up the final uphill kilometer (with Gilbert taking his first win of the season), nine seconds ahead of a Valverde chase group and 12 seconds ahead of the Contador-Froome peloton.
With the crucial 39.4-kilometer time trial coming up on Wednesday in Galicia, Rodriguez has a 53-second lead on Froome, a minute on Contador and 1:07 on Valverde. Those four are a minute clear of their only potential challenger, Dutchman Robert Gesink, who has his Rabobank teammates Laurens Ten Dam and Bauke Mollema for company in the top 10.
But after the Vuelta’s one time trial, which Froome has to ace to stand a chance of winning overall, the outcome will likely rest with the relative strengths of the four leaders’ teams. Unlike that bygone era when Millar (racing for a French team) came up against an armada of Spanish riders leading Spanish teams, Froome and his British squad face Rodriguez on a Russian-sponsored team and Contador on a Danish-based outfit. Only Valverde is on a Spanish team, but with Rodriguez as a friend and Contador the most influential rider in Spain, the home forces may stop the Brit from winning the Vuelta for a second year running.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotogreporter Sirotti
When the route for the current Vuelta a España was announced last fall, much was made of its record number of 10 mountaintop stage finishes, the most ever in a grand tour. Fans were excited that they’d be seeing so many spectacular days of racing. But they may not end up being so thrilled if all those uphill finishes turn the race into a too-predictable procession.
That’s what happened the last time a grand tour had an extreme number of summit finishes: the 2011 Giro d’Italia. After just two of that event’s seven uphill arrivals, Alberto Contador was solidly installed as the race leader, leaving the Italians Michele Scarponi and Vincenzo Nibali far behind in a duel for second place. Although Contador’s win was later voided because of his much-delayed suspension from a 2010 Tour de France drugs offense, that ultra-mountainous Giro was distinctly un-spectacular.
It can be argued that the Vuelta is a very different race from the Giro, that the climbs in northern Spain are often much shorter (but no less steep) than those in northern Italy. But judging by the action this week on the first two of the 10 summit finishes at the 67th edition of the Vuelta, the race looks as if it will quickly devolve into a four- or even three-man race—at least until the one individual time trial on August 29. After that, with nine stages and six summit finishes still to come, the Vuelta could be effectively over.
As he was at last year’s Giro, Contador is the central figure in what is his first grand tour since his doping suspension ended. The Spaniard’s half-dozen sharp, uphill accelerations on the steepest (13-percent) sections of the short Alto de Arrate climb on Monday were spectacular in their frequency, and only three riders were able to respond. His countrymen Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez were quick to match Contador’s thrusts, while British co-favorite Chris Froome was content to bridge up at a steadier, but still rapid, climbing pace. “There are a lot more climbs to come,” Froome reasoned.
Contador was able to launch his series of attacks after being helped immensely by Dani Navarro, the one Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank teammate able to stay with the 30-strong front group at the foot of the final climb. At the same time, stage winner Valverde had two Movistar teammates working for him in that group, Benat Intxausti and defending Vuelta champion Juanjo Cobo; Rodriguez had the support of Katusha teammate Dani Moreno; and Froome counted on his impressive Team Sky colleagues Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao.
With so many climbing stages ahead, and probably some flat stages in between, where wind and heat will be factors, the leaders will have to rely on strong teammates to keep them stay in contention and set them up for the summit finishes. The “team” factor could well work against Contador, especially on the stages with longer climbs where Froome, in particular, looks like enjoying greater strength in depth, with his two Colombian climbers Uran and Henao, Aussie all-rounder Richie Porte, Spanish worker Xabier Zandio and British national champion Ian Stannard.
All these Sky men were prominent on Tuesday, when they split the peloton in crosswinds shortly after race leader Valverde was involved in a crash. As a result, they helped Froome move into second place overall on the 13.4km, 5.2-percent climb to the finish at the Valdezcaray ski station, only a second down on new red jersey Rodriguez, with Contador in third overall.
There are two more summit finishes before next Monday’s rest day (which follows a 1,000km air transfer from Barcelona!). This Thursday, the Fuerte del Rapitán climb at Jaca is 3.8km long, with pitches of 12, 13 and 14 percent in its average 5.4-percent grade. And on Saturday, the only Pyrenean stage ends in Andorra with the toughest and highest ascent of the week, the Collada de la Gallina, which averages 8 percent for 7.2km.
Next Wednesday’s stage 11 is probably the most challenging long time trial at a grand tour since the extremely hilly TT along the Cinque Terre at the 2009 Giro. On a 39.4km course between Cambados and Pontevedra, this Vuelta stage starts and finishes at sea level on the Atlantic coast, and is dominated by the Alto Monte Castrove, which climbs through 1,466 feet in 10km and mostly descends the remaining 16km to the finish. It’s the sort of time trial on which Contador and Froome could gain two or three minutes on lesser time trialists such as Rodriguez and Valverde.
The race’s fifth summit finish comes the very next day at Dumbria. It’s just under 2km long but averages a nasty 13.1 percent! That’s just an appetizer for the horrendously hard Labor Day weekend that has three consecutive mountain stages, all with summit finishes. Stage 14 ends on the 9.5km, 8.1-percent Puerto de Ancares, stage 15 has the classic 13.5km, 7-percent Lagos de Covadonga finish, and stage 16 features the Puerto de Pajares ascent that’s been extended to a distance of 19.4km with the new-to-the-Vuelta Cuitu Negru summit with passages of more than 20 percent over the final 3km.
The mountaintop overload will be completed in the final week with stage 17’s finish up the 17.3km-long Fuente Dé (with only a 4-percent grade), and stage’s 20’s pièce de résistance: the mighty Bola del Mundo, a 11.4km climb that ends on a concrete-paved goat track with 23-percent back-breakers!
Whether the Vuelta’s final six mountaintop finishes will have any major effect on the race’s outcome remains to be seen. We hope they will, but they could end up being consolation stage wins for those who’ve already lost their chances for the final classification.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
The Vuelta starts tomorrow, and, if we accept the dominant storyline that this steep Tour at the desperate end of the season is only a showdown between Sky’s Chris Froome and Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank’s Alberto Contador, then this week’s Group Ride is pretty simple. Who will win, the domestique, straining at his leash, or the returning master of the modern grand tour?
One view is that Contador will win because that’s what he does when the tour is grand. No one on the planet can stay with him when the road goes up and he’s in good form. But is he in good form? Last week’s Eneco Tour would suggest he’s going pretty well, but is it good enough to win in Spain?
The other view is that nothing can stop Chris Froome’s rise to the top of the sport, except perhaps a firm but quiet word in his earpiece from a DS who doesn’t want to see the flying domestique upstage his team leader. Like Contador, Froome excels in the steep. He is able to jump, to find another gear when he needs it. The question is whether he’s had enough time to rest and recover from the Tour and then the Olympics, and then to build his legs again for a three week race.
Of course, there will be other GC contenders showing up, trying to wriggle their way onto the podium. Defending champ JJ Cobo showed last year that he can hang pretty well in the mountains, and Team Movistar will also have Alejandro Valverde along, should Cobo falter.
Rabobank’s Robert Gesink is a rider on the brink. He might not have the change of speed the others have, but he’s a world class climber, and this is certainly a climber’s race. Other’s who might factor include AG2R La Mondiale’s John Gadret, Euskatel-Euskadi’s Igor Anton and Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez.
So have at it. This week’s Group Ride asks: If it’s either Froome or Conatador, which one? And if not them, then who will be the one to confound the commentators?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I was very fortunate during last year’s Tour to be unemployed. I am able to say that now, in retrospect, because after quitting a job on principle, I got the job I most wanted. At the time of course, I was nervous. Who quits a job on principle in an economy like this one?
My emergency job search turned up three good prospects, two of which I thought would be easy to get based on my qualifications and connections, the third was the job I have now, the one I really wanted. It was the long shot, and it came through. I was lucky, and as cycling teaches us over and over again, it’s better to be lucky than good.
As it turns out, I didn’t get either of the jobs I thought I was a shoe-in, because I was “overqualified.” I was too good. It’s nice to hear people think you’re good at what you do, but when you need a paycheck it’s less than cold comfort. It’s insult, and injury on top.
I bring all this up because, as I watch this year’s Tour, I see Chris Froome going through the same thing. Asked to be Bradley Wiggins’ chief lieutenant on the road, Froome has shown himself to be, on some days, even better than his boss.
First he was asked to sit up on Stage 11 when off the front with Wiggins grinding along behind. Then again today, as the Sky pair sought to overhaul a solo breakaway by Alejandro Valverde up a steep Pyrenean slope, Froome gapped his leader and had to wait.
The press have tried desperately to stir conflict within the Sky team by suggesting that Froome is resentful of having to maintain loyalty to Wiggins, while the rider’s own responses have been well measured. Clearly, Froome is doing his job, all the while reminding his bosses and everyone else that he might just be the strongest rider in France at the moment.
Without hauling out the baggage of the Hinault/LeMond intrasquad rivalry that is the template for just this situation, it should be said that pro cycling has little if any room for mutiny. Until a team leader shows himself unable to lead, as Cadel Evans has over the last few days, then a team’s total loyalty must always remain with him. The margin between victory and defeat is too fine to make any real space for freelance ambition.
So that leaves Chris Froome, quite possibly the strongest rider in the race, headed for the second step of the podium. His loyalty is admirable, but he must feel crushed not to be able to fulfill every rider’s ultimate dream, to wear yellow on the Champs Élysées.
Oh, he’ll be roundly praised, and Wiggins will pay lip service to the effort of the team. He has already made a Hinault-esque promise to help Froome win a future Tour, but it’s a bit early for the side-burned Sky captain to start playing kingmaker. Next year’s Tour promises to feature one Alberto Contador, not to mention a possibly resurgent Andy Schleck and a more-experienced Vincenzo Nibali.
On the face of it, Wiggins’ promise is generous. Beneath the surface, it is more or less worthless, almost an insult.
Chris Froome is lucky. He has a job, a good one, and a steady paycheck. He’ll be a hot property for next season as genuine grand tour GC contenders are perhaps the rarest talents in the pro peloton. Unfortunately, he’s overqualified for the job he’s got now.
His reward will be finding a new job and hoping against hope that he can arrive in France, at some point in the future, with the form it takes to win cycling’s top prize, a prize he is currently watching slip between his fingers.
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Following Team Sky’s collective domination of the climbing stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné this past weekend, comparisons are being made with great teams of the past: the Molteni armada of Eddy Merckx, the La Vie Claire crew of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, and the infamous Train Bleu of Lance Armstrong. It’s said that comparisons are odious, but few would deny that the performance of Brad Wiggins and his Sky teammates last Saturday on the mighty Col de Joux-Plane, this Dauphiné’s one truly challenging climb, was nothing less than extraordinary.
The result was that the eight-day Dauphiné ended in a repeat overall victory for Wiggins, with his teammates Mick Rogers (second), Chris Froome (fourth) and Richie Porte (ninth) also finishing top 10. It appears to be a similar result to the 1986 Tour de France, when LeMond was first, Hinault second and their La Vie Claire teammates Andy Hampsten (fourth) and Niki Rüttimann (seventh) also placed top 10. But that result was achieved in a very different manner: Hampsten, Rüttimann and Steve Bauer were LeMond’s only true helpers at that Tour, while Hinault raced an almost separate race, riding against LeMond and supported by the team’s other four (mostly French) domestiques.
As for Merckx and Armstrong, they controlled their teams to act in concert, using their strongest teammates to prepare the ground before making their own moves. In Merckx’s case, those moves sometimes included extraordinary, long solo breakaways, while Armstrong rarely changed his winning formula of making late bursts on mountaintop finishes. The one thing that Armstrong, Merckx, LeMond and Hinault all have in common with Wiggins today is their superiority in time trials. And time trials will play a big role in the upcoming Tour.
However, what Wiggo and his Merry Men did in last week’s Dauphiné was somewhat unusual. They achieved their overall dominance with what amounted to daily team time trials—even up the Joux-Plane! Their having four mean leading an eventual nine-man group to the French mountain’s 5,577-foot summit may have looked like the 2004 Tour hegemony of Armstrong U.S. Postal squad, which had seven men pulling a 22-man peloton up the Col d’Agnes in the Pyrenees; but those Postal riders separately made their strong pulls before dropping back to leave Armstrong alone to battle for victory with Ivan Basso on that stage’s final climb to Plateau de Beille.
The one similar tactic for Sky on the Joux-Plane came from the British team’s Norwegian phenom, Eddy Boasson Hagen, who softened the opposition by setting a fierce tempo in the opening half of the renowned alpine climb, which at almost 12 kilometers long and an average grade approaching 9 percent, is even tougher than L’Alpe d’Huez. The relay was taken up by Sky’s rising Australian star, Porte, who, incredibly, pulled the diminished group for the rest of the 35-minute ascent. All Wiggins had to do was follow with Froome and Rogers.
Other than the non-threatening Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who was “allowed” to sneak ahead (and win the stage), the only riders still with the Sky foursome at the Joux-Plane summit were two team leaders, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, and three lieutenants, Vasil Kiryienka of Movistar, Pieter Weening of Orica-GreenEdge and Haimar Zubeldia of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
Evans, who is still building his form for the Tour, admitted that the climbing pace set by Boasson Hagen and Porte on the Joux-Plane was too constantly strong for him to contemplate making an uphill attack, especially in gusting winds. Evans did use his renowned bike-handling skills to make a downhill attack … but the Aussie seemed to forget that the true descent of the Joux-Plane doesn’t start until a second summit (actually called the Col de Ranfolly), and he wasted energy in a fruitless attack on the two, mainly flat kilometers between the two peaks. So he didn’t finally break through Sky’s impregnable wall until halfway down the 9km descent to the finish in Morzine. If he hadn’t made that initial move Evans, who had placed second four times in four starts at the Dauphiné, would likely have netted enough time to move above Rogers into second overall. Instead, he ended up in third.
But the Dauphiné is not the Tour, and Evans and his BMC team will be at a much higher level in July. As for Wiggins, who’s mimicking Merckx (and Elvis!) with his quirky sideburns, the Brit and his Merry Men know that some of them will also be working hard for teammate Mark Cavendish at the Tour. But with the world champ, on a sugarless diet, on course for losing 10 pounds of body fat before the 2012 Tour de France starts in Liège on June 30, maybe the sprinter will be light enough to work for Wiggo in the climbing stages after he picks up a batch of stage wins in the first half of the Tour!
Another difference between the Dauphiné and the Tour is that most of the likely Tour contenders were either not at their best in the Dauphiné or racing this week’s Tour of Switzerland. Of course, Saturday’s climb of the Joux-Plane was a disaster for potential contenders Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale (nine minutes lost), Denis Menchov of Katusha and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi (both 13 minutes back) … and RadioShack’s Andy Schleck, who didn’t even get that far, abandoning the Dauphiné on the stage’s first climb because of the injuries sustained in his time-trial crash last Thursday.
There have so far been mixed results in Switzerland for RadioShack’s other Tour contender, Fränk Schleck, Movistar’ leader Alejandro Valverde and two other likely Tour contenders, Levi Leipheimer of Omega-Quick Step and Robert Gesink of Rabobank. But by the end of the Swiss race—finishing with a full mountain stage next Sunday — all of those riders look likely to be on the same upward path as Evans.
If the Tour de France were starting right now instead of June 30, everyone would be predicting a race dominated by Team Sky and an overall victory for Wiggins. But as the Tour has seen countless times, crashes and sickness often ruin the hopes of favorites, as happened last year with Wiggins, Leipheimer and Gesink. And the true contenders rarely come to the top until the third and final week, as could be the case this year, with Evans, the Schlecks, and perhaps Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda, challenging Wiggo and his Merry Men.
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Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Ryder Hesjedal takes his career as a professional bike race ultra-seriously. He trains obsessively, he never shirks from working hard for his teammates, and whenever he gets a chance to ride aggressively he grabs it without a second thought. That’s why his magnificent performance in the 95th Giro d’Italia—the first Canadian to finish on the podium of a grand tour, let alone win one—didn’t surprise those who know him well. Even if his victory shocked the European cognoscenti.
So, you may ask, why has the 31-year-old Garmin-Barracuda team man taken so long to reach the top of the cycling world?
The answer to that question is a complex one because Hesjedal has always had the talent to excel at the highest level, though we’ve only seen flashes of his capabilities in a wide range of races over the past decade. But befitting his calm and dignified manner, the British Columbian has shown infinite patience with his career and been quietly confident that one day his time would come. Now it’s here.
The Italians say that men capable of winning grand tours—they call them fuoriclasse—give hints of their great talent at an early age. Hesjedal, whose great-grandparents were farmers who emigrated from Norway in the 19th century, certainly did that. He grew up in the small rural community of Highlands, to the northwest of Victoria on Vancouver Island, where Hesjedal’s father made a meager living selling firewood that he cut in the pine forests. Dad and mom later took jobs with the municipality, while son Ryder showed a penchant for sports, excelling at baseball and lacrosse.
Everyone rode bikes in the Highlands, and young Hesjedal soon developed a love for riding his hard-tail Norco mountain bike on the single-track trails that crisscrossed this hilly region of lakes, woodlands and wilderness. The District of Highlands Web site says that its residents are “both self-reliant and cooperative.” That certainly characterizes Hesjedal, who began competitive cycling in his early teens as part of British Columbia’s booming mountain-bike scene.
Like other cycling journalists, I was first impressed by Hesjedal’s talent when he finished second in the junior men’s cross-country race behind Frenchman Julien Absalon at the 1998 world mountain bike championships at Mont-Ste-Anne in eastern Canada. Three years later, at the mountain bike worlds in Vail, Colorado, we saw the lanky Canadian again place second to Absalon, this time in the under-23 category. That same week, his fellow Victoria resident Roland Green, six years older than Hesjedal, won the pro men’s world cross-country title.
At the time, it seemed a given that Hesjedal would follow in Green’s footsteps, especially when at age 21 he won a 2002 World Cup cross-country at Les Gets in the French Alps, beating a field of champions that included off-road legend Thomas Frischknecht. But, at 6-foot-2 and 159 pounds, Hesjedal was big for a cross-country racer compared with more compact rivals such as Absalon, Cadel Evans and Miguel Martinez.
Like Evans before him, Hesjedal was already integrating road racing into his schedule by signing with Rabobank’s espoirs team in 2002. He quickly showed his talent by winning the French amateur classic Paris-Mantes in April that year, making a long solo break to finish more than three minutes ahead of the field. And in September, shortly after that World Cup victory at les Gets, Hesjedal showed his stage-race strength by winning Spain’s four-day Volta a Cataluña de l’Avenir.
But mountain biking remained first on his agenda, knowing he had a chance of Olympic glory in Athens. He won the prestigious NORBA national series in 2003 (and again in ’04) and placed second in the pro men’s cross-country at the ’03 worlds in Lugano, Switzerland—only beaten by Belgian veteran Filip Meirhaeghe, who would admit to using EPO prior to the ’04 Olympics.
Hesjedal was also preparing his post-Athens career by joining Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team in 2004. So he debuted in European pro road racing that spring. I chatted with him in Bruges before the start of his first classic, the Tour of Flanders, where he told me how pleased he was to play a part in helping new teammate George Hincapie win the previous week’s Three Days of De Panne. Hesjedal didn’t finish Flanders, but a week later, in Spain, he got into the winning, eight-man breakaway at the extremely hilly Klasika Primavera in the Basque Country: He placed fifth behind winner Alejandro Valverde, and ahead of the Italian stars Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni.
That early success was almost forgotten in a year dedicated to winning an Olympic gold medal — a dream that ended when he flatted five minutes into the dusty Athens cross-country. He didn’t finish the race and dropped out of the worlds a couple of weeks later, and never started another mountain bike race.
So, in essence, Hesjedal’s road career didn’t really begin until age 24 as a domestique with Discovery Channel in 2005. He worked for Hincapie in the northern classics and, in stage racing, for Italian Paolo Savoldelli at the Tour de Romandie (placing 32nd, only two minutes behind his team leader) and at his first grand tour, the Giro, which Savoldelli won. Hesjedal valiantly did his team duty at that Giro, even after a bad crash on stage seven in the south of Italy; but he eventually pulled out (with 15 others) on a savage stage 13 over five passes in the Dolomites.
Hesjedal did enough that season to be recruited in 2006 by the ambitious Phonak team, whose leader would be Floyd Landis. I interviewed both of these North Americans at their pre-season training camp in Majorca. Hesjedal said he hadn’t given any interviews since dropping out of mountain biking, and I found him to be quietly ambitious about the year ahead. He was hoping to return to the Giro, a race he said he really liked, but Phonak put him on another program — which included taking fourth overall at May’s Volta a Cataluña (thanks to fourth place on the mountaintop finish in Andorra) and 17th overall at the Dauphiné.
His only grand tour in 2006 was the Vuelta a España, where he was lying a promising 21st before he abandoned the race on the 11th stage, with a view to riding a strong world championships in Salzburg, Austria. Perhaps he should have finished the Vuelta because he placed only 22nd in the worlds’ time trial and didn’t finish the road race, and when the doping-scandalized Phonak team folded at year’s end, Hesjedal was left without a team.
His career in limbo, he spent 2007 with HealthNet-Maxxis on the U.S. domestic scene, with 10th place at the Amgen Tour of California the highlight. The ever-optimistic Canadian didn’t give up his apartment in Girona, Spain, confident that he would be back on the Continent before too long. And that was the case. He was signed by Jonathan Vaughters at Garmin-Chipotle and so his European road career finally received its real beginning in 2008, just four years ago.
Since then, Hesjedal has improved every year, growing in confidence at the grand tours and performing at the highest level in the spring classics. The highlights have been diverse: aiding teammates Christian Vande Velde and Brad Wiggins place fourth overall in the Tours de France of 2008 and 2009 respectively; placing fifth at the 2009 Clasica San Sebastian before winning stage 12 of the Vuelta in a summit finish at Alto de Velefique; and, in 2010, placing second to Philippe Gilbert at the Amstel Gold Race, winning a stage of the Amgen Tour of California, placing sixth at the Tour de France (after team leader Vande Velde crashed out and including brilliant rides on the cobblestones of northern France and the mountaintop finish on the Tourmalet), and third at the GP de Montréal behind Robert Gesink and Peter Sagan.
His 2011 season was something of a transition year, the highlight being Garmin’s victory in the Tour de France team time trial and overall team prize, while Hesjedal rode support for sixth-place Tom Danielson. Perhaps 2012 would have seen similar results, but in the winter team manger Vaughters and new team director Allan Peiper persuaded the British Colombian to be the Garmin team leader at the Giro.
Now, with his astounding victory in Italy, Hesjedal can truly say his career has taken off!
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti