The reactions to Lance Armstrong’s decision not to enter arbitration have been as varied as the colors of the rainbow. Their sheer diversity is surprising if only because of some of the emotionally charged comments on Facebook and Twitter (not to mention RKP’s comments section) are as irrational as the number i and even harder to understand. I don’t begrudge anyone their feelings about Armstrong, cycling or this case, but I think it might be helpful to keep a bit of score.
Cleaning Up Cycling
I’ve seen any number of assertions, even some by the mainstream media that this has somehow served as an important step toward cleaning up cycling. Armstrong may have been charged with participating in an organized doping program, but he was only one of the hydra’s many heads. Removing him from that operation didn’t kill it. Amended results notwithstanding, Johan Bruyneel has lost the last two Tours de France and judging from this year’s performances by Team RadioShack, the one-time master of all things grand tour seems to have lost his touch, so the point there may be moot. Even if Bruyneel is banned from the sport, his was only one of many systematic doping programs; he was less an instigator (think Ferrari) than a facilitator, a manager. One can be virtually assured that somewhere on this planet some team manager is attempting an end-run on the system.
Will cycling be cleaner after this case? It’s unlikely. No amount of punishment meted out on the Texan will likely convince any rider who is currently doping to stop the practice. Those riders look at the fact that they haven’t been caught yet and are likely to be able to continue what they do. And riders who aren’t doping, but are wrestling with whether or not to start will mostly likely view this in terms of big fish/little fish. Armstrong was a big fish, they will reason, and subjected to a great deal more scrutiny. They are, by comparison, very small fish, and in their thinking, unlikely to receive the same amount of scrutiny, allowing them to fly under the radar.
The bigger refutation to the idea that cycling will be cleaner is that the techniques being used to accomplish doping are generally not the ones that were used by Armstrong and co. A retroactively produced documentary directed by Martin Scorcese wouldn’t uncover every detail of what was done during Armstrong’s run. More specifically, while transfusions may still be in use, the methods used to mask them have certainly evolved, which brings us back to the point that this case doesn’t fix today’s doping.
Clean Cycling: 0
Knowing the Truth
Many of Lance Armstrong’s detractors have itched themselves into oozing meth sores waiting for Tygart’s inquiry to divulge the full story about Armstrong’s doping. From what was taken, to how much was paid, to the methods used to evade detection, to the bribes paid (and to whom) down to the name and Social Security number of every rider who ever doped on that team, people wanted flesh. While the fat lady hasn’t hit the stage, Armstrong’s decision to forego arbitration means we are unlikely to see full transcripts of the grand jury testimony, particularly the testimony from George Hincapie, David Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde, which has reportedly resulted in six-month suspensions they will serve after the season ends.
Again, to the degree that the merit of the outcome of this case was based on learning the truth, we’ve been denied that satisfaction. While the cycling world may be convinced that Armstrong used PEDs, there is an even larger population for whom believing Armstrong is a persecuted innocent is as easy as believing that the next Mega Millions jackpot is theirs.
I don’t want to get into a semantic argument on the nature of truth, but it’s worth asking if those who desire the truth be exposed will only be satisfied if the entire world arrives at the conclusion that Armstrong doped—an outcome that may not be possible in a world where we parse the varieties of rape. However, if they can be satisfied if only the cycling world believes Armstrong to be guilty while the prevailing story about him is that he was the victim of a witch hunt, then it’s worth asking if their desire for the full story is meant to satisfy their personal curiosity, which is a less noble motivation.
Clean Cycling: 0
Playing to Lose
There’s a lot of talk that in doping, Armstrong didn’t level the playing field because each rider responds to doping products and methods differently. While that is true, here’s another fundamental truth: Every clean rider is different. Pros have widely varying VO2 maxes, maximum and resting heart rates and lactate thresholds. You line up for a race hoping that your training has been sufficient to overcome any genetic shortcomings you might have. There is no level playing field.
There’s an oddly relevant scene early in Douglas Adams’ book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Adams describes a drinking game played by the character Ford Prefect that involved something called Old Janx Spirit and telekinetic powers. The loser of the game was forced to perform a stunt that was “usually obscenely biological.”
Then came the line, “Ford Prefect usually played to lose.”
I was a teenager when I read this and the thought that someone might want to deliberately lose a drinking game was funnier than a Monty Python movie. However, it started within me a more serious meditation on why someone might enter any contest with the intention of losing. I didn’t come up with an answer for situations that didn’t involve anything “obscenely biological” until I came to appreciate the nomination process in American politics, a place where people with neither the qualifications nor chance of becoming president will run for the office as a way to angle for a job better than the one they have. More recently, though, I’ve come to see riders who chose to race clean during the height of the EPO problem—we’re talking mid-1990s through the turn of the century—in a similar light.
Given that the vast majority of results from that era are dominated by riders who we know doped, riders who lined up for any race big enough to warrant television coverage without veins filled with rocket fuel were bringing fingernail clippers to an air strike. They were playing to lose.
The problem isn’t that they lacked ambition or a work ethic; rather, it seems that those riders brought morality into what has effectively been an amoral system. The only proven way to win during that era was to dope.
Clean Cycling: 0
I’ve seen a few people compare Lance Armstrong to Jerry Sandusky. The comparison goes like this: Lance Armstrong did more good than bad because he gave lots of people hope and sold a bunch of bikes and those people outnumber the riders he cheated out of winning by doping. Similarly, Jerry Sandusky did more good than bad by giving underprivileged kids the opportunity to participate in sports, and those kids outnumber the kids he sexually assaulted. It’s an obscene comparison because you can’t equate the soul-shattering violence of a sexual assault—an event that can destroy a person’s ability to sustain intimate relationships—with cheating. Each of Sandusky’s crimes was personal, committed one-on-one. Conversely, while there’s no doubt that riders like Christophe Bassons were harmed by Armstrong’s methods, they were victimized by more than just Armstrong—most of the peloton, actually—and they suffered more as collateral damage. Events such as Armstrong chasing down Filippo Simeoni are more serious than simple collateral damage, but even that is a light year from sexual assault.
A much greater illusion is the idea that justice has been served. Imagine you live in a neighborhood where nearly every car runs the red light between you and the corner store, making a milk run pointlessly suicidal. Suppose that the police swoop in with a huge dragnet and ticket only one driver. Granted, he drove faster than anyone else through the light, but with only one of hundreds of drivers out of the picture, justice has yet to be served because it’s still not safe to walk to the store.
Justice will be served once the peloton is essentially clean. Essentially is an important modifier here; cycling will never be quit of doping, but a mostly clean peloton is a realistic goal. Until we’re there, we don’t have justice.
Clean Cycling: 0
Following the Money
The majority of the money that floats the cycling teams competing in the world’s biggest races comes from outside the sport. For the most part, the men responsible for sponsoring these teams aren’t cycling fans. Unlike those of us who follow what’s happening in cycling on a daily basis, for them, cycling is an occasional blip on the news radar. When you look at cycling through their lens, most of the news about cycling in the last five years hasn’t been good. In the United States, nearly every occasion that has brought cycling to any sort of headline capacity has been doping. Armstrong has been making headlines lately, but before that it was Contador being stripped of a Tour de France. To give you some idea just how hard it is for cycling to make national headlines, most of the accounts I read barely made the nullification of his Giro performance a footnote. Before Contador the last time cycling made real headlines was in 2011 when Tyler Hamilton appeared on “60 Minutes” and the only reason that merited news was because of his previous relationship to Armstrong.
When you factor out Armstrong, doping and the Olympics, the national media hasn’t found an American cyclist worthy of a headline since Floyd Landis won the Tour de France. Think about that for a moment. That’s six years.
Nike has already signaled that they are standing by Armstrong. They are one of the only companies on the planet with the marketing genius in-house to figure out how to spin this into a “Lance is still the man” ad campaign. Because of their reach and the fact that they sit at the top of the pyramid of sports brands, there are few companies as well-equipped to weather such a storm. That said, don’t think they aren’t gunshy; it’s worth noting that you don’t see them lining up behind Tejay Van Garderen just yet. We may not see Nike sponsor another cyclist as long as Phil Knight lives.
I’ve spoken to people in the hunt for non-endemic (outside the industry) sponsorship for four different teams. They all reported the same challenge: the number one conversation killer is doping scandals. For many companies, the potential damage to their brand that would come as a result of a doping scandal makes the sport too great a risk. Again, these are companies that aren’t in the bike industry.
There is odd relationship at work. Bike companies don’t factor in these considerations; they are all-in as it were. Specialized isn’t about to start sponsoring sprint cars or bass fishermen. Surprisingly, when a sponsored athlete gets popped for doping, their reputation doesn’t take the sort of hit that a company like T-Mobile or Festina did, companies whose names became synonymous with doping scandals. An athlete who tests positive is still an embarrassment, but they get a bye on the image-pummelling that companies outside the industry can’t afford to face.
For all those who think that we’ve already hit the nadir for cycling sponsorship, consider that the Armstrong affair isn’t actually over. There’s still a chance that there could be civil lawsuits regarding Armstrong’s winnings and the names of the US Postal Service (an organization that really can’t afford any more bad publicity) and the Discovery Channel will be buried in more mud than can be found at a monster truck rally.
Not enough? Consider the number of teams that operated with a “this space for rent” status in the last five years: Team Columbia-High Road, Garmin-Slipstream, Cervelo Test Team and Leopard-Trek, just for starters. We can add Liquigas-Cannondale to that list because bike companies—even companies as large as Specialized and Trek—don’t have the kind of cash handy to step into a title sponsor or co-sponsor spot. When you see their names in a title-sponsor spot (e.g. Liquigas-Cannondale), it’s a sign that the team is shy of their sponsorship goals.
But wait, the problem is worse than that. Imagine how executives at Faema would be sweating if WADA decided to go back and retroactively amend the rules so that they could investigate all of that team’s riders, especially Eddy Merckx. Who would want to risk a sponsorship in a sport where you could be embarrassed decades after your sponsorship has ended? I haven’t checked eBay lately, but last I knew there were no active auctions for time bombs.
Clean Cycling: 0 (everyone loses if there’s no sponsorship)
The disparity between the way USADA pursues American athletes and the lengths that the Spanish federation goes to defend its athletes has made a mockery of the judicial process. That no American athletes have moved to Spain and taken out a Spanish license may be the best single argument currently for just how clean the American peloton is. If I were a doped cyclist, I’d have purchased an apartment in Girona and renounced my citizenship by now. It would be my insurance plan against Travis Tygart nuking my life.
While I think it’s a travesty to have a guy like Tygart, who seems to hold a hostility for cyclists, running USADA, I can say that I’d feel a bit differently if he were running WADA. Were every pro cyclist subject to his scrutiny that might help the sport as a whole. I think it would force him to reevaluate his priorities and we might see a different mission in just what he pursued. With more on his plate, I have some small degree of faith that he’d have to chase the present with more verve, which is how cycling will get cleaner.
Clean Cycling: 0
We don’t need a recap to know that clean cycling hasn’t fared well against these issues, which is why even though cycling is significantly cleaner than it has been at any point in its history, it is still easily embarrassed and as a result, underfunded. If professional cycling is going to survive and reach a place where the average member of the public is willing to believe that cycling is a clean sport, some big changes are going to need to take place.
House must be cleaned at the UCI. The organization has been part of too many alleged coverups and has shown too little leadership to hold our faith that they understand what the public and sponsors demand. Pat McQuaid needs to resign and then people who understand the importance of the fight against doping must be hired.
What this really comes down to is that testing must improve. But how? Most of the riders out there make so little they can’t support a family on their income, so asking them to give up more of their income to fund testing is as thoughtful as asking them to give up a finger. Or two. It’s not unrealistic to tax the incomes of the top 200 riders to help pay for more testing for them. Still, that’s not a great source of funding for more testing because a sponsorship drought means that incomes for many riders are depressed. Increasing the ask for potential sponsors is unlikely to achieve the results we seek.
So who can pay? Here’s a suggestion: The Amaury Sport Organization, RCS Sport and other event organizers. They’ve got skin in the game—every time a rider tests positive at one of their races, that’s bad press for the race and the organizer is embarrassed. So far ASO and other race organizers have been intransigent on the point of sharing revenue from TV rights. While seemingly every other sport on the planet shares TV revenue, bike races have had an unusual relationship with television because they have not needed facilities owned by the teams in which to stage races—think stadiums. The use of open roads combined with a notoriously weak riders’ union has allowed ASO and others to keep millions upon millions of euro any other sport would long since have divvied up. No one else has both the pockets and the need to clean cycling up that the ASO does. No one man can do more to help reform cycling than ASO’s head, Christian Prudhomme, pictured above.
By having race organizers pay for more testing we could achieve some of the aim of revenue sharing, without making it an open-ended request for the checkbook. It would be a way to move things in the right direction.
Testing needs to be more frequent for more riders. It’s impossible to say that will fix things, but more testing and better testing will help. And if the sport has fewer doping scandals—in particular, fewer scandals at the very top—then cycling will seem like a better investment and finding sponsors won’t be as hopeless an endeavor as tilting at windmills.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
We saw this coming. Anyone who didn’t see a suspension looming for Alberto Contador probably didn’t think the worldwide real estate bubble would burst, that the summer of love would end or that drugs would continue to be a problem for cycling. The Spanish Cycling Federation really didn’t have many choices. Even though some media quotes suggest that certain members of the federation would have acted to protect Contador, it would have been suicidal for the federation to absolve him of any infraction.
Even if it was conclusively proven that a team of rogue ninjas mugged Contador, strapped him down and then placed a cookie jar over his hand, his hand was not allowed in the cookie jar under any circumstances. Strict liability. The rules really didn’t allow for another outcome.
American cyclist Scott Moninger mounted mounted the most rigorous defense ever presented to show that the presence of a banned substance in his body got there unintentionally. Moninger tested positive for 19-norandrosterone due to a tainted supplement. He bought up other containers of the dietary supplement and had them tested to demonstrate how the substance entered his body. He still got a one-year suspension.
By comparison, Contador has floated theories that have mostly involved tossing the whole of the Spanish beef-producing industry under the bus. It may be that he genuinely doesn’t know where the Clenbuterol came from, how it entered his body. He has, however, a problem that Moninger didn’t have. His test sample showed evidence of plasticizers that are used to keep equipment used in blood transfusions soft and pliable. Think of plasticizers as lotion for plastics.
While there is no rule specifically against plasticizers, the UCI’s ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ view of the world suggests they are unlikely to be satisfied with a single year’s suspension for el Pistolero.
The issue here is not whether Contador deserves a more significant suspension, it’s that by not handing him a more significant suspension, the Spanish Federation may have actually prolonged Contador’s agony. Should the UCI appeal his suspension, the fighting could go on longer than the current length of his suspension.
It’s hard to think that a cycling story could eclipse the current Sports Illustrated piece concerning the investigation into Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service cycling team by Jeff Novitzky, but here we are. Current Tour de France champion stripped of title and suspended for doping beats story of 10-year-old allegations into Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping.
Should the UCI accept the one-year suspension and not appeal for something longer, we are still within our right to ask about the suspension as determined. How useful is a one-year suspension?
Contador is 28. Suspended for one year, he’ll come back to compete in the Tour de France at the ripe old age of … 29. And after all, 29 is generally considered to be roughly the peak of a cyclist’s powers.
Had Contador tested positive for, say, heroin, I would have been suspicious that something odd had happened. I would be hesitant to believe that he took that drug. However, the Clenbuterol and plasticizer fit precisely within the logic of what a Grand Tour rider would take. To the degree that there’s been a rush to judgement on Contador, it’s been because the substances found in his sample fit within what we know of doping practices by those attempting to win stage races.
I’ve tried, from time to time, to suspend not disbelief, but belief. If I’m honest, I was suspicious of Contador’s success during the 2009 Tour. Certainly his performance in the final time trial at Lake Annecy strained my credulity. It couldn’t have been less believable to me even if director Michael Bay had added machine guns, car crashes and explosions.
It is because I have trouble believing that he’s only accidentally guilty that I wonder if a single year suspension is enough. Perhaps his suspension as recommended by the Spanish Federation won’t matter, even if the UCI doesn’t appeal it. It seems possible that the Amaury Sport Organization will just refuse to invite any team he’s on—in perpetuity.
And if they do that, could we blame them?
It’s easy to wonder just what’s on the mind of Pat McQuaid. I honestly don’t know how his mind works. However, I do wholly believe that Christian Prudhomme wants the Tour de France competed in and won by clean athletes. And I think part of the ASO’s issue with the UCI is that they don’t see the Aigle Cabal as doing enough to protect their interests.
Twelve months from now we may be saying, “Woe be unto thee who hires Alberto Contador.”
It may be that hiring him doesn’t ensure victory; instead it may only ensure what races you’re not doing.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
A little over a week ago I wondered aloud in a Tweet if the Amaury Sport Organization might make a preemptive move against Radio Shack and withdraw the team’s invitation to the Tour de France. It would be an incredible blow to the team, but in the wake of Floyd Landis’ accusations against Lance Armstrong, Johan Bruyneel, Levi Leipheimer and others, were the organizers to take Landis’ accusations as credible, history suggests they might just take such action.
Responses all ran the vein of ‘dead wrong.’ And yet now we have Team Radio Shack being denied a spot in the Vuelta a Espana. Like Garmin-Transitions, Radio Shack joined the ProTour since the 2008 agreement forged between the UCI and the organizers of the Grand Tours in which the UCI and the ProTour teams acknowledged the autonomy of the organizers to select only those teams they see fit.
Selections are not made in a vacuum. To help the organizers gauge a team’s potential competitive power, each team is asked to submit a roster of riders likely to ride the event. After all, if you’re Unipublic and you learn a team will send the same nine riders who rode both the Giro and Tour (not that that has ever happened), you’d be within your rights to conclude that team would be too tired to be truly competitive. Bruyneel’s short list of riders he submitted was an all-star squad: Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Kloden, Chris Horner and Janez Brajkovic. Radio Shack also skipped the Giro d’Italia this year with an eye toward riding the Tour of California and just two Grand Tours.
Bruyneel says he was “speechless” when he learned of the exclusion. Representatives for Unipublic, the organizers of the Vuelta said they left Radio Shack because the team would not be competitive.
It’s true that Radio Shack has been criticized for not being more competitive this year, but let’s take a moment to measure them against the six teams that were invited to the Vuelta by wildcard and their ranking in the world according to the UCI:
Team Katusha: second
Cervelo Test Team: ninth
Sky Professional Cycling Team: 17th
Xacobeo Galicia: unranked
Radio Shack, following Brajkovic’s victory at the Criterium du Dauphiné, is ranked eighth in the world. Prior to that they were ranked 14th.
In his The History of the Tour de France, Volume I, Bill McGann writes that one of the key features that makes the Tour a better race than the other two Grand Tours is that its organizers have largely avoided petty, nationalistic spats that have hurt the other races.
I’d have to say that’s at work once again. In 2006, the ASO refused to allow nine riders to start the race due to their alleged involvement in Operacion Puerto. Because five of those riders were members of the Astana-Wurth team it fell below the minimum number to start the race, so some thirteen riders didn’t start the Tour.
It’s no secret that since the 2009 Tour Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel have been portrayed in the media as public enemy nos. 1 and 2. Whether most Spanish cycling fans feel that way is harder to say, but Marca and As have done much to foster the conflict between Contador and Bruyneel/Armstrong.
It’s impossible to say what Unipublic’s motivations are for the exclusion. No one would be surprised if the snub were as a result of the Landis allegations. It seems that most of Europe will concede both that he’s crazy and telling the truth about his drug use and the drugs he alleges Lance Armstrong took as well. However, Unipublic took a different approach saying that Radio Shack wouldn’t be competitive. I’m sorry, but you could send Chris Horner to almost any race in Europe aboard a Schwinn Varsity and he would still be competitive.
Of the six teams invited by wild card, only Team Katusha was more highly ranked in the world standings. We can objectively refute the organizer’s claims that Radio Shack would not be competitive. Put another way, as good a year as Garmin-Transitions seems to be having (Tyler Farrar is having a truly breakout season), in winning both the Tour of the Basque Country and the Criterium du Dauphiné (not to mention third at the Amgen Tour of California), Radio Shack is having a better season; at least, that’s what the UCI’s numbers say.
Had Unipublic declared that they believe Floyd Landis and harbor too many suspicions about Armstrong, Bruyneel and the rest to allow their race to be besmirched by the presence of a team under such strong suspicion, some racers, officials and many fans would have cried foul. However, such a decision is not without precedent—think 2007 Astana—and given the number of inquiries opened up into the pasts of so many former US Postal riders, many people wouldn’t have flinched at the announcement. More importantly, the decision, while presumptuous, wouldn’t have smacked of the irrational.
But Unipublic didn’t do that. They claimed that Radio Shack wasn’t competitive enough. That’s like saying Los Angeles doesn’t have enough roads. Everyone knows that’s crazy talk, and unfortunately the damage it does is three-fold. Radio Shack loses an opportunity to try to win a second Grand Tour in a season. Racing fans lose an opportunity to see racing influenced by what would be almost surely a dominant team, and Unipublic loses some of the respect we reserve for events whose integrity we believe helps to elevate sport beyond mere entertainment.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
USA Cycling, in response to a request from the UCI, has banned race radios in almost all road and track events. With the exception of UCI HC or Category 1 races, radios and audio playback devices (iPods and MP3 players to us normal folk) may not be used. Effectively, that means you’ll see radios still in use in all the events that actually result in race-watching tourism: the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour of Missouri, the Philadelphia International Classic (men) and Liberty Classic (women).
Last fall, the UCI banned race radio use in all races with a .2 classification. USAC’s action extends that ban to non-UCI-sanctioned events, thereby ensuring that you won’t see radios in use in any Pro/I/II events. The same is true for similar category European-held events, as was announced a few months ago, but this expansion of the ban—which also includes “audio playback devices”—moves things a small step closer to an outright ban on race radios in the events we cycling fans really follow.
For radio bans to extend further one of the best developments that could take place is for race organizers elect to ban them from their races. The Amaury Sport Organization is the obvious candidate for this as they could try it in a race such as Paris-Nice before considering it in an event such as Paris-Roubaix or the Tour de France.
Team can be expected to fight any expansion of this rule with the fervor of a gang war, but the arbiter will be race outcomes. The success of a suicide break or two will give the UCI all the ammo it needs to push its will into all the ProTour events.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The Amaury Sport Organization has announced another unusual Tour de France route for 2010. Just as the 2009 route broke with tradition and started in the south of France, the 2010 route will break with at least one important tradition. However, it will pay homage to one of the Tour’s most enduring traditions, the Col du Tourmalet in a big way.
In broad strokes, the route sounds familiar enough. There will be two time trials, the first of which is the prologue, the second being the final time trial that falls on the Tour’s next-to-last day. There are six stages in the Alps and the Pyrenees, with just three mountain top finishes. Four stages will contain what the organizers call medium mountains and nine stages will be flat.
The Tour will begin Saturday, July 3 with an 8km prologue in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In years with even numbers, the Tour traditionally starts in a nation outside France and will ride two or three stages in other nations before entering France.
Again, in even numbered years, such as this one, upon entering France, the route typically continues a streak of cool, wet stages across the north of France as it begins a counterclockwise loop around the country. Ultimately, this results in hitting the Pyrenees Mountains first. For 2010, however, the route makes a gradual zig-zag from Rotterdam on its way to the cities of Brussels, Spa, Porte du Hainaut, Reims, Montargis, Gueugnon and Station des Rousses, before hitting the Alps first. Along the way, we know the riders will hit some hills and cobbles known in the Spring Classics.
The 2010 route features just two days in the high Alps with one, the stage into Morzine-Avoriaz culminating in a mountain top finish. The two stages will be broken up by a rest day, which suggests the ASO wants the riders rested for a second hard day in the Alps. And while the stage to Morzine-Avoriaz will fall in stage 8, on Sunday, July 11, the second Alpine stage, which will take in three Category 1 climbs before tackling the hors categorie ascent of the Col de la Madeleine will come in stage 9, on Tuesday, July 13. Set your Tivo now.
The finish in the town of St. Jean de Maurienne will be followed on stage 10, Wednesday, July 14, with what Tour organizers call a “medium” mountain stage. While exact route details haven’t been released just yet (more on that later), don’t think for a second that this will be an easy day. The route travels from Chambery to Gap and can be expected to take in several climbs in the Chartreuse Mountains before climbing through the Vercors on the way to Gap. The stage could feature a half-dozen climbs, or more.
The following Sunday, July 18, is when the real fireworks start, so if you were afraid of a repeat of this year wait-till-the-last-minute-to-determine-the-winner route, welcome to your nightmare. To be fair, the final week will be dramatic, if somewhat unusual in that the rest day won’t be at the beginning of the week, Monday, a week following the last rest day, but on Wednesday, July 21, some nine days after the last rest day. The riders should be sufficiently weary by this point.
Sunday, July 18, features the second of the mountain top finishes, with riders ascending the excruciating 2001-meter Port de Pailheres before tackling the final climb of Ax-3 Domaines to finish at the ski station there; both climbs average more than eight percent.
Stage 15, on Monday, July 19, the riders tackle what is supposed to be the second of four days in the Pyrenees, but the stage is, by Tour de France standards, relatively tame. There is but one climb of more than 1500m, the 1755m Port de Bales, which comes, thankfully, very near the end of the stage.
In stages 16 and 17, on Tuesday, July 20, and Thursday, July 22, is the 2010 Tour’s most interesting feature: Two acents of the Col du Tourmalet. On July 20 it comes mid-way into a mammoth climbing stage that features the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, Soulor and Aubisque. Unfortunately, the stage also features 41km of gentle downhill following the day’s final descent off the Aubisque. Whoever wins the stage is likely to weigh more than 60kg (132 lbs.), unfortunately.
On July 22, the race gives us its queen stage and while it won’t have the most climbing by meter (that came on stage 16), it will be the most interesting day of the race. Following the climbs of the Col de Marie Blanque, the Col du Soulor (both Category 1), the race will climb the Col du Tourmalet for the second time and for only the second time in history the stage will finish atop the mountain. The last time that happened was 1974.
On the first ascent of the Tourmalet on stage 16, riders will approach from the Col d’Aspin, passing through the town of Sainte Marie de Campan before ascending the Tourmalet’s somewhat easier eastern flank, passing through the ski village of la Mongie on the way to the top. However, on stage 17, riders will approach from Argeles-Gazost and climb the mountain’s more brutal western flank. While both sides average a 7.4 percent gradient, the western side is much steeper near the top with long stretches above 12 percent and the last 100m or so at 15 percent. Because there is barely room enough for the bar that sits on the scalpel of a ridge, riders will likely descend the 4km to la Mongie to meet up with support staff, team vehicles, climb the podium and, of course, give a sample for doping control.
Stage 18 gives the riders a bit of a chance to recover with a flat stage headed for Bordeaux wine country. Stage 19, on Saturday, July 24, features a 51km time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac through the dead-flat vineyards of the world’s most famous wine country. A transfer later that day will position riders for the annual parade into Paris.
Unlike the route introduction of many previous years, the ASO did not reveal all of the route information for each stage; that won’t be done until June. For many stages, the roads the riders will travel can be deduced from the towns situated at the foot of the climbs. If the riders pass through Argeles-Gazost and less than 20km later they are atop the Tourmalet, they can only be climbing the mountain’s western flank. So why withhold information about the route? While there could be a few reasons, there is one easy answer: Tour groups.
The ASO has done what it can to cut down on tour groups poaching premium watching spots. Tour companies advertising Tour de France itineraries have been sent cease and desist letters instructing them not to advertise such an itinerary unless they pay a fee (a rather exorbitant one last I read, one that would render any such tour an operating loss). On the Tour’s web site is an ad inviting folks to become Tour de France VIPs; the link takes you to a menu of three English-speaking and one French tour companies: Englishman Graham Baxter’s Sports Tours Int’l, the Aussie operation Bike Style Tours and a newer American outfit called Custom Getaways. On the French side is Ronan Pensec Travel.
It can be presumed these four operations are getting the same (or similar) hotel selection that the teams get, which will give them an advantage over any non-fee paying operation and when it comes to watching mountain stages, it’s locationlocationlocation. A well-chosen hotel will mean the difference between riding to your day’s end and getting in a car, van or bus and riding for an hour (or three) to your hotel.
Word from several insiders is that Trek Travel’s constant poaching of premium stage watching locations (complete with fenced-off, client-only areas) and hotels so chapped the ASO, they realized they had to clamp down on everyone. While some tour operators decided to focus on other locations in July (Dolomites, anyone?), others just bill their Tours differently; Trek Travel calls theirs Lance in France, which can mean but one thing for a tour starting July 3.
So what does this route mean for the racing? Naturally, we’re not likely to see a clear leader until the final week. Strategically, Alberto Contador is likely to race against Lance Armstrong and hope, a la Bernard Hinault, that blows the race apart. Armstrong will race The Shack against Contador’s team, no matter what team that is, attempting to wear them down and isolate Contador. Saxo Bank will race the brothers Andy and Frank Schleck as two sides of the same card.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International