Bradley Wiggins is remaking the Tour de France in his own image. He has illustrated that there’s no such thing as an incumbent at the Tour de France, and all who hope to pull on the Golden Fleece must make their well-timed move with confidence, and after considerable preparation.
There can be little doubt about Wiggins’ preparation. In early March he won Paris-Nice, wearing the leader’s jersey for all but the prologue and opening stage, and taking out the final time trial—a mere 9.6km, but battled uphill. Next, at the end of April, he scored a win in the opening road stage of the Tour of Romandie, which allowed him to take the leader’s jersey once again. Luis Leon Sanchez did take the jersey off the Brit’s shoulders for a day, but in the final time trial Wiggins trounced Sanchez, taking back the yellow jersey and becoming only the second rider in 20 years to win Paris-Nice and Romandie in the same season.
Wiggins then confirmed that he was no spring champion with his performance at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Wiggins won the Dauphiné last year before crashing out of the Tour. Wiggins finished a single second down on Luke Durbridge in the brief prologue. Again, Wiggins took the leader’s yellow jersey following the opening road stage and held his one-second lead over Cadel Evans until the time trial. Of course, Wiggins killed it in the time trial; so great was his speed that he warped the space-time continuum to the point that he finished before Evans even started. Okay, not quite.
That time trial performance deserves a bit more scrutiny; we’ll get to it in a minute. Naturally, Wiggins went on to win the Critérium du Dauphiné and in so doing became the first rider in history to win Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné in the same season. Statistically, that makes him a pretty serious outlier, a less-than-1-percenter. As it is, only two riders have won both the Tour of Romandie and the Tour de France in the same season: Stephen Roche did (in 1987, natch) and Cadel Evans did it last year.
Here’s where a discussion of peak form comes into play. For Paris-Nice, Wiggins’ stiffest competition came from Lieuwe Westra, the Dutchman riding for Vacansoleil. The closest competition Wiggins had from a certified Tour de France GC contender was Andreas Klöden in 18th place, more than six minutes down.
At Romandie the Brit faced guys like Sanchez, Andrew Talansky and Rui Costa. Real Tour GC guys like Michael Rogers and Roman Kreuziger were showing up in the top 10, but were nearly a minute down.
At the Dauphiné Wiggins faced serious competition from guys like Michael Rogers and Cadel Evans, guys tuning up for the Tour de France. Despite giving up a few seconds to Rogers and 10 seconds to Evans on the final stage, Wiggins took the Dauphiné by 1:17, his largest margin to that point in the season. It’s possible that Wiggins wasn’t on peak form in March at Paris-Nice, but there is no doubt he was on better form than other riders with Tour aspirations. It’s hard to say he wasn’t on something approaching peak form at Romandie: he was definitely revved higher than his peers. But the Dauphiné? Few guys ever get the opportunity to show the kind of form at the Dauphiné that Wiggins displayed. How could that not be peak?
Here’s what leaves me scratching my head: The Dauphiné TT was 53km. Wiggins put 1:43 into Evans. In yesterday’s stage 9 TT, Wiggins put 1:43 into Evans, but the length of the event was only 41.5km. It shows that he is on even better form now than he was at the Dauphiné.
I’ve been thinking that Wiggins has been riding a wave of peak form dating to Romandie, the last week of April. That puts him in his 10th week of peak form. I’ve been telling people Wiggins will flame out, pointing out how no one in history has ever won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France all in the same season.
That bears repeating: No one, not even the insatiable Cannibal himself, ever won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France all in the same season.
Clearly, he’s not days from flaming out based on his ride in stage 9. But his form is too amazing to ignore, and by that I mean his form has been so good for so long that people are taking notice of more than just him winning. His form has crossed that threshold into being conspicuous. People are wondering if he might be doping.
It’s a shame, really. Everything we know about Sky is that the program has been, like Garmin-Sharp, at the very vanguard of clean cycling. Much of the brouhaha surrounds accusations by l’Equipe, the French sports daily known for having sourced information on positive EPO tests by Lance Armstrong. The Texan’s methods notwithstanding, l’Equipe has been just partisan enough in their reporting that it’s fair to wonder if they wouldn’t chase after any cyclist whose first language is English.
But the trajectory Wiggins is on is just the sort of physical miracle that draws attention. To use a literary term, his form has bumped up against our suspension of disbelief. And here’s a corollary to l’Equipe‘s susicion: at Romandie, Sky teammate Chris Froome finished the TT 39th, 1:45 down on Wiggins. At the Dauphiné Froome was sixth, 1:33 behind, and only 10 seconds faster than Evans. However, in stage 9 of the Tour, Froome was a stunning second, 35 seconds behind his team leader and 1:08 faster than the Tour’s defending champion.
Wiggins needs to understand that rides of that caliber don’t just suggest questions, they beg them. For my part, I sincerely hope he’s clean, because as long as he keeps winning the questions will keep coming and the quotes will be unpublishable in most locations. Hilarious, but unpublishable. His could be an unhappy tenure at the top.
After another crazy week that has eliminated several pre-race favorites, the 2012 Tour de France appears to have become the two-rider battle between Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and BMC’s Cadel Evans that many expected it to be.
Or has it?
With men like Vincenzo Nibali, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Andreas Kloden, and Samuel Sanchez positioned near the top of the GC as the race hits the mountains, there are still several men capable of upsetting the apple cart. And with talented teams like Garmin-Sharp, Rabobank, and Europcar gunning for stage wins now, these mountain stages could be faster, more aggressive, and harder for teams like Sky and BMC to control.
In other words, let’s not hand the race to Wiggins and Evans—at least not yet. There’s still room for an upset.
Take Katusha’s Denis Menchov for example. The Russian is actually the most successful grand tour winner in the bunch, having won the Tour of Spain twice and the Tour of Italy once so far in his career. He’s also finished inside the Tour’s top-3 on two occasions. Physically, Menchov should have no problems with the mountains of this year’s Tour de France and he can certainly hold his own in the race’s two long time trials. And with Wiggins and Evans marking one another heavily, Menchov is perfectly poised to add the one grand tour still missing from his palmares.
He’s the perfect dark horse in a race that still contains several of them.
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Even longtime cycling fans sometimes wonder what’s happening in bike races. Take this week’s opening road stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné. It looked like a fairly straightforward race day when a breakaway went clear from the start, but why did Orica-GreenEdge, the team of race leader Luke Durbridge, let the leaders create a 13-minute gap, forcing other teams to conduct the chase? And why couldn’t the sprinters’ teams close down the attacks in the finale before BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans snagged the stage win in precocious fashion?
The first question is easier to answer. Having the yellow jersey at races like the Dauphiné can be a mixed blessing. To win the flat prologue ahead of such a strong field was a coup for Australian rookie Durbridge, but he’s never going to be a top climber, so keeping the overall lead was not a high priority. Durbridge’s focus this season is trying for an Olympic time trial medal in London, so rather than defending a yellow jersey he’d be better off saving his energy for this Thursday’s long, 53.5-kilometer TT stage of the Dauphiné. And that’s what he did.
What was more interesting on Monday was that the chase behind the breakaways was initially taken up by Evans’s BMC men, not by the Sky team of prologue runner-up and defending Dauphiné champion Brad Wiggins. Evans himself went back to his team car to talk with his directeur sportif, John Lelangue, before getting teammates Michael Schär and Manuel Quinziato to push the pace at the head of the peloton.
In contrast, Wiggins, who’d take over the GC from Durbridge, was not eager to wear the yellow jersey and said at the post-stage press conference, “At one point [in my career] I would have been happy to wear the maillot jaune. Now, I can’t say that I’m upset, but I’d rather wear my Sky skinsuit for Thursday’s time trial, so I’d prefer to lose a few seconds between now and then.”
As a result, it was BMC that virtually closed down the breakaway, and then on a Cat. 3 climb in the last 12 kilometers, it was BMC’s Philippe Gilbert who joined one of several attacks before Evans counterattacked to join the key move after the summit. With the Aussie superstar were local French rider Jérôme Coppel of Saur-Sojasun and Kazakh veteran Andrey Kashechkin of Astana. “I knew that there could be some splits [on the climb],” Coppel said later, “and that once we were over the top of the hill the road didn’t go down right away.”
It was understandable that Coppel, in his “hometown” race, would ride as hard as he could with Evans, but it was surprising that the Kazakh also gave a few pulls to sustain the break over the final 5 kilometers. Five years after he was suspended for blood doping (shortly after the same verdict for his team leader Alexander Vinokourov), Kashechkin, 32, is trying to re-establish himself with team Astana; but, other than team-time-trial performances, he hadn’t taken a top-10 placing since his comeback to racing until his third place behind Evans and Coppel on Monday.
Maybe Kashechkin has hopes of replicating the third place overall he took at the 2007 Dauphiné, but at this year’s race he should be riding support for Astana teammate Jani Brajkovic, the 2010 Dauphiné champ, and not helping Evans gain what was a three-second gap at the end. As Lelangue told L’Équipe after the stage, “At the Dauphiné, every second is always good to take.”
Evans himself said he hadn’t planned on winning the stage, but “I enjoy being in these sort of moves.” His strong pulls and eventual dynamic uphill sprint were reminiscent of a certain Bernard Hinault, the five-time Tour de Franc winner who also took the Dauphiné three times. Evans has placed second four times at this prestigious French stage race, so maybe this is his year to win it for the first time before going on to shoot for a second Tour victory.
Among the BMC rider’s most serious opposition at the Tour will be the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team’s battery of stars. The team’s theoretical Tour team leader Andy Schleck is riding as he usually does at pre-Tour stage races, and he’ll likely test his climbing legs on one of the Dauphiné’s three mountain stages over the weekend; but signs from last week’s Tour of Luxembourg were very positive for the U.S.-sponsored squad.
On the decisive climbing stage on Saturday, only the sturdy Dutch climber Wout Poels of Vacansoleil could stay with The Shack attack by Fränk Schleck, Andreas Klöden and Jakob Fuglsang on the short but steep Col de l’Europe (1.5km averaging 7.6 percent), which they climbed three times at the end of the 206km stage.
In contrast to Evans’s unrehearsed breakaway at the Dauphiné, the Schleck-Klöden-Fuglsang demonstration was very much premeditated, and it is just the type of multi-pronged move that the team can be expected to engineer at the Tour next month, especially when you add into the equation RadioShack’s other climbers Chris Horner, Maxime Montfort and the younger Schleck, along with such explosive riders as Fabian Cancellara, Linus Gerdemann and Jens Voigt.
GIRO AND CALIFORNIA
While on the subject of why people make certain moves and others don’t, it’s worth taking a brief look back at last month’s Giro d’Italia and Amgen Tour of California. For example, why did 2004 Giro winner Damiano Cunego twice go out on long breakaways on the first two mountain stages, probably knowing that the moves wouldn’t be successful? Why did Horner, the defending Amgen champ, attack so far from the Mount Baldy finish on the decisive stage, leaving behind a breakaway group he had engineered with Voigt and two other teammates on the opening climb? And why did race favorites at both the Giro and the California tour wait so long before making aggressive moves—or simply waited and waited and never took risks?
Sometimes, the riders themselves can’t exactly explain their actions (or non-actions). They often act on instinct and even, at times, ignore the instructions given to them by their directeurs sportifs. But in the case of experienced riders such as Cunego, his Lampre-ISD sports director Robert Damiani and co-team leader Michele Scarponi, you can bet that the Italian rider’s actions were well thought out, even if they were impromptu.
On the first stage in the high mountains of the Giro, in cold and wet weather, Cunego reacted to a solo attack by the Venezuelan climber José Rujano, a few kilometers from the summit of the Col de Joux with about 90 minutes of racing still ahead before the mountaintop finish at Cervinia. Cunego had to work hard, sprinting out of the saddle on the long, steady climb just to get close to Rujano’s wheel—and when the Venezuelan slowed on the descent, Cunego plowed on alone before catching the day’s early break and eventually dropping back and being passed by the more conservative favorites.
Cunego made a similar move on the next day’s stage 15, again in cold, wet conditions, and both days he allowed teammate Scarponi to sit quietly in the small pack of leaders before making his own accelerations on each day’s summit finish. Scarponi didn’t win the Giro. but his efforts actually keyed the attacks by longtime leader Joaquim Rodriguez.
Because the toughest two mountain stages of the Giro came at the very end of the three weeks, everyone was hesitant to enter the red zone too early on any of the summit finishes. And even then, anyone who watched the riders finishing one by one, and in states of massive fatigue, on Alpe di Pampeago could see that this was a Giro fought to the very last breath. And the man with the most endurance, the strongest teammates and the best time trial was the man who deservedly won: Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda.
Over in California, the decision was always going to be made on Mount Baldy, the second-to-last day, because none of the stages before the stage 5 Bakersfield time trial were well-enough structured to avoid group sprints. By uncharacteristically conceding more than two minutes to the other main contenders (and placing a lowly 42nd in the time trial!), Horner ruled himself out of repeating his 2011 overall victory. Or so it seemed.
His jumping up to the first break on the Baldy stage and driving it with three RadioShack teammates was a gutsy and totally unexpected development that showed the true level of Horner’s ambitions. And when, after Voigt was cooked, Horner jumped clear of the break (with Colombian climber Jhon Atapuma on his wheel), he had a margin of more than three minutes on a desperately chasing field. And overall victory still seemed possible.
Ideally, the Californian would have had one more teammate. And in a perfect world, that man would have been Matt Busche, but last year’s Baldy hero was having a bad day and just surviving back in the peloton. So in the circumstances Horner had no choice but to make his solo attempt (Atapuma barely helped) with almost 40 kilometers (most of it uphill) still to go. It was an epic performance and augers well for Horner and his team to make the upcoming Tour de France one where tactics and teammates will be more important than ever before.
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This weekend begins the final set of preparation races before the spring classics with Saturday’s running of the Monte Paschi Strade Bianche, Sunday’s start to Paris-Nice, and Tuesday’s opening of Tirreno Adriatico.
Monte Paschi Strade Bianche (Saturday, March 3rd)
Known commonly as “L’Eroica”, Italy’s Monte Paschi Strade Bianche is one of the newest races on the European calendar, but its roots are deep. Featuring over 57 kilometers of Tuscan white gravel roads, the race has quickly become one of the most popular events of the spring. Fittingly, the first five editions of the race have produced winners including Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert, the defending champion. As an added bonus, this year’s L’Eroica will be aired on live television, which means fans all around the world will have a chance to watch the action unfold.
Paris-Nice (Sunday, March 4th – Sunday, March 11th)
This year, the eight-day “Race to the Sun” has returned to its roots by including an individual time trial up Nice’s Col d’Eze for the first time since 2001. The race begins with a short, individual time trial that will start the GC sorting early, followed by several stages that will put the peloton’s echelon skills to the test. Expect sprinters and rouleurs to dominate these first few road stages.
As the race nears the Mediterranean, the mountains loom. Stage 5 finishes atop Mende’s Le Croix Neuve (the “Jalabert climb”), while Stage 6—a stage that begs for a Thomas Voeckler attack—features five categorized ascents on the road from Suze-La-Rousse to Sisteron. Stage 7 covers four more climbs, the last of which is the 1st Category Col du Vence, over 50 kilometers from the stage’s finish in Nice. Stage 8 will settle the GC; the Col d’Eze ITT leaves no margin for error. The climb is not incredibly steep, suiting more traditional time trialists best—pure climbers will need to forge their advantages earlier should they hope to emerge victorious.
Tirreno Adriatico (Wednesday, March 7th – Tuesday, March 13th)
Italy’s “Race of the Two Seas” begins Tuesday with a team time trial that will immediately place several GC riders at a disadvantage. Stages 2 and 3, while long and rolling, should both end in field sprints. Stages 4 and 5 see the mountains make their appearance, which should result in the first reshuffling of GC. Stage 6 features six laps of the circuit used for the 2010 Junior World Road Race Championship—another sprint is expected. The race concludes with a 9.3-kilometer individual time trial that will settle things once and for all.
With teams spread between two countries (or more in some cases) this is a ten-day period in which having a deep and talented roster is paramount to a team’s success. Let’s take a team approach to running down the favorites for this year’s editions:
BMC – BMC comes to Italy’s L’Eroica with defending champion Philippe Gilbert hoping to atone for a relatively poor showing in Belgium last weekend—or is he? He’s joined Saturday by George Hincapie, Greg Van Avermaet, Cadel Evans, and my pick for the win, Alessandro Ballan. Ballan has finished second in L’Eroica twice (2008 and 2011), and would certainly love to take his first victory since 2009 on home turf. Next week in Tirreno, BMC will be led by another returning champion: Cadel Evans. Evans was certainly unafraid that a win last year would ruin his Tour prep—look for him to use the 7-day event once again to test his form. The course certainly suits him.
In Paris-Nice, the squad turns to Thor Hushovd and Tejay Van Garderen, the former hunting for stage wins and form for the cobbled classics, the latter hoping to take another step in his development as a GC contender in major stage races. While a win might be out of his reach, a top-5 finish against some tough competition would be a step in the right direction.
By winning last year’s Criterium du Dauphiné, Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins proved that he has what it takes to win major weeklong stage races. He’ll get another chance at Paris-Nice alongside Richie Porte and Rigoberto Uran. With Christian Knees, Danny Pate, Geraint Thomas, and Kanstantsin Siutsou fetching bottles and pulling back important breakaways, anything but a podium finish (or the win?) will be a disappointment for the British team. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Wiggo and Porte hit the podium.
In Italy, the squad’s classics contingent will tackle Tirreno Adriatico, building form for Milan-San Remo and the cobbled classics. Mark Cavendish, Edvald Boasson Hagen, and Juan Antonio Flecha are the riders to watch here—expect at least a handful of stage wins and increased hype surrounding Cavendish and Boasson Hagen heading into Milan-San Remo.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – Omega hopes to shrug-off its mediocre performance during the opening weekend in Belgium with wins at Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico. Defending “Race to the Sun” champ Tony Martin will co-captain the squad in France alongside Levi Leipheimer (the winner of last month’s Tour de San Luis in Argentina), and French Champion Sylvain Chavanel. That said, I wonder if Martin would have been a better choice to lead the team at Tirreno Adriatico, a race with a TTT, an ITT, and less climbing than Paris-Nice. Leipheimer and Chavanel would have been fine on their own and the squad would have increased its chances of winning both races. Instead, the team will rely on Tour of Oman champ Peter Velits to lead the squad in Italy. He should do well assuming his form has improved since Oman.
Interestingly, for the first time since 2007, Tom Boonen will use Paris-Nice as his last stage race before the spring classics. Maybe he’s hoping for a return to 2005, when he won two stages in Paris-Nice on his way to winning both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Liquigas-Cannondale – Naturally, Liquigas is sending it’s two best riders—Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan—to L’Eroica and Tirreno Adriatico. Both won stages at last month’s Tour of Qatar, with Nibali taking an impressive win atop Green Mountain, the event’s “Queen” stage. Eros Capecchi, (the winner of Sunday’s GP Lugano) will be at Tirreno as well and is certainly a candidate for stage wins and possibly a top-10 finish overall. These three as well as Moreno Moser and Daniel Oss are riders to watch in L’Eroica. For many fans, the possibility of a Moser winning on the strade bianche is too tantalizing to ignore.
In Paris-Nice, Ivan Basso and Elia Viviani will lead the way. Basso is peaking for the Giro and will likely be riding to build fitness, while Viviani—himself a winner of five events already this season—will be looking to the race’s field sprints in an attempt to prove he deserves mention alongside Cavendish and Greipel as one of the fastest men in the world.
RadioShack-Nissan – RadioShack-Nissan heads to Paris-Nice with a squad that we could very well see lining-up in Liège this coming June (remember, the Tour de France begins earlier this year due to the Olympic Games). Indeed, with Frank and Andy Schleck, Andreas Klöden, and Maxime Monfort all starting, it is quite possible that we could see at least three (I doubt we’ll see Andy Schleck do anything more than ride tempo for his teammates) of Bruyneel’s men finish inside the Paris-Nice top-10. Of the three, Klöden (last year’s runner-up) has the best shot at a victory. The German won Paris-Nice in 2000, largely thanks to his win in the Col d’Eze time trial, a stage making its return to the race this year. RadioShack’s winless thus far in 2012—look for Klöden to end that next Sunday.
As for Tirreno, RadioShack takes the approach of many teams, sending the bulk of its classics contingent to Italy. Fabio Cancellara won Tirreno in 2008 and has used the race in the past as the foundation of his classics campaign. While another GC victory might be out of his reach, Cancellara will certainly make his presence known. Daniele Bennati could also challenge for a stage win, while Chris Horner could be a surprising GC contender at such an early point in his season.
Rabobank – Rabobank has divided its resources fairly equally between Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico, sending Bauke Mollema and Luis León Sánchez to France in search of high GC finishes and Carlos Barredo and Mark Renshaw hunting for stage wins. Sánchez already has four top-5 finishes in Paris-Nice, including the overall victory in 2009, but the event’s return to a more traditional parcours might hurt his chances. As for Renshaw, it is still a bit early, but I have a feeling he doesn’t have what it takes to be the team’s sprint captain—his past success looks to be more a product of HTC’s system than anything else. That said, a stage win in France would prove doubters like me wrong.
At Tirreno, Steven Kruijswijk will lead the team’s GC assault—the youngster has proven to like racing in Italy, as evidenced by his eighth-place finish in last year’s Giro d’Italia. Lars Boom is a candidate to win the final ITT (and GC?), while Matti Breschel and Michael Matthews should contend for stage victories as well. Breschel’s biggest priority will be putting the finishing touches on his form for the classics. His Omloop performance shows that he’s close, but still has room to improve.
Lampre – Lampre’s taking a two-pronged approach to the coming week, sending one squad led by Damiano Cunego to Paris-Nice and another led by Michele Scarponi to Tirreno. Scarponi won Tirreno in 2009 and narrowly missed defending his victory the following year when he lost to Stefano Garzelli by a fraction of a second. He’s looking forward to another assault on the Giro d’Italia this season (he finished behind Alberto Contador last year) and could certainly create some buzz with another strong performance next week. As for Cunego, he finished second in last Sunday’s GP Lugano, but has ridden inconsistently in recent years, making it hard to get a handle on his chances in the Ardennes. A strong Paris-Nice would certainly restore our faith in the Italian. Diego Ulissi bears watching for stage wins as well.
Movistar – Alejandro Valverde has returned from suspension to win three races already this season. He leads Movistar in France. Valverde has a Paris-Nice stage win and a (voided) second-place overall finish on his resume, but I have a feeling this year’s course—and the competition—might prove too tough for the Spaniard. He’ll be a contender, but I doubt he’ll win the race. Surprisingly for the Spanish team, Movistar’s best chances for a win this week might come in Italy, where Giovanni Visconti—the reigning Italian champion—will look to show his home fans that his emigration was not a mistake. Look for him to be at the forefront during both L’Eroica and Tirreno, where Visconti might be better served going for stage wins than a high overall finish.
Acqua e Sapone – Stefano Garzelli is justifiably disappointed to have seen his team left uninvited to the 2012 Giro d’Italia. After all, Garzelli won the Giro in 2001 and took home the mountains classification last year. Instead the Italian will have to settle for Tirreno Adriatico, a race he won in 2010—barely. Garzelli is one of those riders that you can always count on to perform well in certain races. In this case, he’s a certain contender for the overall victory by virtue of the simple fact that Tirreno’s the biggest race on his program—at this point at least. While other riders might be looking past it to more important events, Garzelli has been racing and training knowing that this might be his best (and only) chance for a major victory this season. And for a rider who’s been the subject of mid-season transfer rumors, a win next week might go a long way to making such a move come to fruition.
Katusha – Denis Menchov will lead Katusha in Paris-Nice. And while it’s anyone’s guess as to his current level of fitness, it’s certainly a race that suits the Russian’s strengths. In Italy, Joaquim Rodriguez and Oscar Freire will lead the way, both looking for stage wins. The race’s two time trials will likely be too much to make Rodriguez a candidate for the overall victory. Freire actually won Tirreno back in 2005, taking advantage of field sprints and time bonus to win one of the event’s flatter editions. This year, the Spaniard has included the race on his “farewell” tour as it gives him the best preparation for what could be his fourth victory in Milan-San Remo.
Garmin-Barracuda – I suspect Garmin-Barracuda will be seeking stage wins in both France and Italy next week, with Ryder Hesjedal a strong contender for Saturday’s L’Eroica. The former mountain biker scored three top-10 finishes on the strade bianche from 2008 through 2010, and with the pressure of contending the Tour de France off his shoulders, might find himself “riding a bit lighter” now. Johan Vansummeren and Tyler Farrar will join the Canadian in Italy as both riders continue to build for the classics. Farrar’s still winless in 2012; that could easily change in Tirreno.
In France, Omloop-winner Sep Vanmarcke will join Heinrich Haussler and Christophe Le Mével at Paris-Nice. Haussler is also winless this season and wants to prove that his fantastic 2009 season was more than just a flash in the pan—a solid Paris-Nice will a long way toward accomplishing his goal. Also worth noting: Thomas Dekker makes his World Tour return in Paris-Nice as well.
Saur-Sojasun – Jerome Coppel won this season’s Étoile de Bessèges and then finished third at the Ruta del Sol. A talented climber and time trialist, the young Frenchman hopes to continue his progression with a podium finish in Paris-Nice. If he does, look for the rider (with a 5th-place finish the 2010 Dauphiné and a 14th-place finish in last year’s Tour on his resume) to become the new darling of France’s cycling media.
Project 1T4i – 1T4i’s Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb will try for stage wins at Paris-Nice in the hopes that they can impress the ASO enough to earn a Tour de France wild card invitation. Kittel did well against some tough competition in Oman; he’ll face a more intense level of competition in France.
Astana – Astana has yet to win a race this season and hopes to soon end the streak. The squad turns to Roman Kreuziger, Maxim Iglinskiy, Borut Božič, and Enrico Gasparotto in Italy, and Janez Brajkovič
in France. Brajkovič won the Dauphiné and—on paper at least—should enjoy a Paris-Nice that looks tailor-made for him. Maxim Iglinsky won L’Eroica in 2010 while Božič should be a contender in Tirreno’s field sprints. As for Kreuziger’s chances at a high overall placing, I suspect he’ll test his form without ruining his preparation for this year’s Giro.
GreenEdge – GreenEdge is feeling the pressure that comes with being a new (and hyped) World Tour squad. In Paris-Nice, Tour Down Under winner Simon Gerrans will attempt to defend his lead in the World Tour standings while building fitness for the Ardennes classics. Meanwhile, Matthew Goss, Stuart O’Grady, and Sebastian Langeveld lead the Australian team’s Tirreno squad. Goss has been conspicuously silent so far this season—he needs to show himself soon if he wants to a chance to defend his title at Milan-San Remo.
1-Kite Dark Horses
Colnago-CSF – In 1975, Giovanni Battaglin won a stage of the Giro d’Italia that tackled the Prati di Tivo, the climb that concludes Stage 5 in Tirreno. Look for Battaglin’s nephew Enrico to do his best to honor his uncle’s legacy with a stage win of his own—or a win in L’Eroica. Sasha Modolo should also be a threat in Tirreno’s sprint finishes.
Colombia-Coldeportes – Colombia-Coldeportes makes its World Tour debut at Tirreno Adriatico with Fabio Duarte the team’s best chance for a stage win.
Team Type 1 – Sanofi – Jure Kocjan finished fourth in last year’s L’Eroica. He’s been sick as of late, but alongside Danielle Colli, he could turn some heads Saturday.
At L’Eroica, I think Alessandro Ballan will give BMC its first victory of the season over Ryder Hesjedal and Enrico Battaglin. Ballan’s in-form, motivated, and has the experience necessary to win a race on the strade bianche. In Paris-Nice, Andreas Klöden will take his second title in the “Race to the Sun” over Leipheimer and Valverde, while in Tirreno Adriatico, Nibali will defeat Evans and Garzelli.
What about your picks? Share them below.
Image: ©BMC/Tim de Waele
So Alberto Contador won the Tour de France by a margin slimmer than many said was possible, a margin equal to what he clawed out with the aid of Dennis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez on stage 15. We can argue about all the places each rider gained or lost time, but really, the race comes down to two fateful events: Schleck’s mis-shift on 15 and his later 39-second gap in the final time trial. The symmetry of the two events is more difficult to ignore than the economy.
And just to be ultra-clear about this, yes, I’m saying that without help from both Menchov and Sanchez, Contador wouldn’t have won the Tour.
I should also point out that even though he twice went for stage wins for himself, Alexander Vinokourov proved to be both valuable and loyal to Contador in the mountain stages. Vinokourov sat on Schleck on stage 15 and never rode for himself by taking a pull at the front of the group. He’ll always be an unpredictable element in my mind, but he demonstrated his value to the Astana team repeatedly. He deserves to be recognized.
But individual performances aside, if we back up and look at the 2010 Tour de France as an elaborate chess game involving 22 players, some interesting questions emerge.
First, what the hell has Johan Bruyneel been thinking? He fielded the most experienced team in the Tour de France, sure, but it was also the oldest team by an Egyptian pharaoh. The most youthful element of the team was the management company’s formation documents. Even if we accept the possibility that the fight went out of Armstrong following his daily crashes so that by the time the time trial came around, he really wasn’t trying—which is why we didn’t see the form necessary to win the race overall anywhere in the same time zone as him—we should still ask the question: Why did no one else other than Chris Horner ride like his career was at stake?
Speaking of recognition, let’s hope that Horner feels some satisfaction and vindication at his stellar ride. It’s one of the best performances by a rider over the age of 35 ever at the Tour, and is his single best performance there. It was his misfortune to sign for a French team when he first went to Europe and his worse fortune to have his career coincide with Armstrong’s. Had he hit Europe five years earlier than he did, he could have led Motorola in its quest to do something significant in a Grand Tour. Or not. There have long been reports that Jim Ochowicz (director of Motorola and now one of the powers that be at BMC) had issues with the formerly feisty San Diegan.
Back to Bruyneel. His reputation as a kingmaker able to deliver a worthy rider to a Grand Tour victory has suffered its first setback. Even with the triple-barrel shotgun of Armstrong, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer he was unable to deliver any one of them to the top 10. Horner’s performance was the sort of showing that the French teams generally hope to luck into but can plan no better than a chimp considering retirement.
With that much talent and so little to show for it, the brass at The Shack might be understandably perturbed.
This time last year many of us were beginning to rethink what might be possible age-wise in a Grand Tour. Now, the near complete waterlogging of Radio Shack has most cycling fans thinking that, yes, age really does slow you down. Too much to deliver a win on the world’s biggest stage.
And cast in the light of failure, Armstrong seems less ambitious, less hungry, less focused on highlighting the cause of cancer than just gluttonous, a corpulent ego.
But that’s how we play it isn’t it? When our heroes fall, we pounce.
But even if the Radio Shack board is less than thrilled, imagine what’s going on in the boardroom at Sky. Isn’t the question there whose head rolls first?
Seemingly a world away, Bjarne Riis has proven that he knows how to bring the race to anyone he wants. He’s delivered Tyler Hamilton, Carlos Sastre, Ivan Basso and Andy Schleck all to podium finishes at Grand Tours, though his record of wins (just two) is rather slim despite the obvious strength of his team.
Yvon Sanquer, a name you may not be very familiar with even after his team’s success, is the director of Team Astana and has kept a profile nearly as high as that of newly mown grass. His previous best result as a team director was after being brought in to rescue Team Festina (not unlike what he was asked to do with Astana) and his riders (mostly Marcel Wüst) were able to take a stage of the Tour de France along with four stages of the Vuelta plus some stages at lesser stage races. Before 2010, his riders’ closest association to the winner of a Grand Tour was if they had chatted with him.
And yet, somehow Sanquer brought together what seemed to be an underpowered team and saw to it that Contador was rarely without help in the mountains.
Despite the Astana team performing as if it were still run by Johan Bruyneel—admit it, it was an impressive performance that very few thought could truly deliver the goods as a cohesive unit this past January—I am surprised by the number of people I hear from who just plain don’t like Alberto Contador. To the degree that maybe many cycling fans were less than enthusiastic about him, it seems that even if his counter attack on stage 15 didn’t rile people, the fact that he lied about not knowing what was going on with Andy Schleck seems to have sent some fans around the bend. I’ve not been a fan of some of his tactics, and have thought some of his interviews with the Spanish media were whiny and meant to play the pity card, which strikes me as unseemly—like the Super Bowl winning team sniffling about playing hurt, but it struck me as insulting to fans everywhere for him to claim he couldn’t tell there was anything wrong with Schleck.
Which brings me to Jonathan Vaughters. Of the teams bidding for Contador’s services last year, Vaughters’ Garmin-Transitions formation was one of the teams in the running to sign the diminutive Spaniard. There are reports that after all of his efforts to leave Astana he is now considering a new contract and staying.
Contador would do well to leave, so long as he left for Vaughters. Of the many team directors at the Tour de France, Vaughters is the one that seems to have an uncanny ability to help riders achieve greatness in the GC that he never could reach on his own. In three years of competing in the Tour de France Vaughters has delivered three different riders to top-10 finishes, first with Christian Vande Velde’s fourth place, then Bradley Wiggins fourth and now Ryder Hesjedal’s seventh place. In each case the riders were uniformly believed to be talented, but no one—other than Vaughters—considered them real GC vehicles on which to pin a team’s hopes.
Sanquer’s success with Contador suggests competence, nothing more. After all, if you can’t guide a previous Tour de France winning to yet another victory, what kind of team director are you?
Bjarne Riis has consistently put together one of the strongest, most cohesive teams on the planet. That he hasn’t won more may be a question of formula more than anything else. The question seems to be, ‘Why didn’t he win?’ rather than, ‘What’s it going to take to secure another win?’
Bruyneel is the great curiosity this year. He’s ripe for criticism. How should he deflect the charge that he went with Armstrong less for career than paycheck? If he didn’t go to Radio Shack for the paycheck, then why? It’s hard for Bruyneel to charge that Vinokourov is a more tarnished rider than some he has worked with. Contador clearly has a greater future than Armstrong does. Maybe the question is just how loyal a guy is Bruyneel. Some folks are loyal to a fault. Could it be so with him?
Even if he didn’t go to Radio Shack just for a bigger paycheck that is virtually guaranteed not to dry up mid-way through the season, where does he rank his ambitions as a director? Twelve of the team’s 26 riders have had their 30th birthday. Six of them are older than 32. The only rider on the team who is showing talent and is early in his career is Janez Brajkovič. Taylor Phinney doesn’t count because he’s only a staigiaire.
How else do you wind up with that many riders in need of a retirement party than by selecting a crew that can be depended on being utterly devoted to Armstrong? Now, there’s nothing wrong with being committed to supporting your team leader, but it is fair to ask how smart it is to construct a team for a single year’s performance. Even if Leipheimer, Klöden, Horner and Rubiera plan to ride Grand Tours next year, how capable will any of them be? Horner is the only guy I’d bet on as a good support rider for the simple reason that he is obviously still proving his value and talent long after most guys have quit.
You want to make the 2011 Tour de France really interesting? Get Vaughters to sign Horner.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
On July 1, 2010, the 2010 Tour de France looked as if it would be one of the most competitive editions of the race in its history. Rarely has a Grand Tour had so much talent show up with winning in mind. It was as if the six best teams in the NFL took the field for the Superbowl.
This was a Tour whose closest parallel was perhaps the 1989 edition, where three former winners—Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Greg LeMond—took the start and were ultimately the race’s greatest protagonists. This year’s race also had three former winners toe the start line—Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. Nearly as important is the fact it also had an amazing six former podium finishers—Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Alexander Vinokourov—at the start, plus Denis Menchov, a three-time Grand Tour winner in his own right. It was to be The Great Showdown.
The point of a Grand Tour, of course, is to see who cracks, which riders fail under pressure, but even more importantly, which riders rise to the occasion and surprise themselves, their teams and the fans. With a field gushing talent and experience like an out-of-control well in the Gulf of Mexico, no one really thought there would be room for any insurgent talents, but the prospect that one of the former top-10s, such as Frank Schleck, Michael Rogers or Bradley Wiggins capturing a podium spot seemed less science fiction than the impossibility of sealing off that aforementioned well.
But here we are, nine stages into The Great Showdown and what do we have? A race of two. That is, the race will come down to Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck provided there are no race-ending crashes or other stunning tragedies that befall either rider. That said, the way this race is going, I am willing to accept the possibility that someone other than either of these two riders could win. This race has had that much bad luck.
Lance Armstrong’s good fortune seems at an end. I’ll say more on that in another post. Garmin-Transitions lost Christian Vande Velde in a crash and it’s odd to think he isn’t the only rider on that team nursing broken bones. Frank Schleck was rumored to be even stronger than brother Andy this year. And then there was Cadel Evans’ detonation. Even though this isn’t the first time he has choked under pressure, his eight-minute slide down the mountain and the standings must have caused a few jaws to hang open, mine among them.
Speaking of surprises, what of Team Astana? Last winter I wrote of the skeleton crew that had been hired just to give them enough riders to qualify for the ProTour. I was critical of the team and dinged the formation for not having the climbers necessary to defend Contador when he would most need it. Tonight’s meal will include a serving of my words.
What should we make of Alexander Vinokourov’s performance so far? The great fear was that he would go rogue and ride for himself and challenge Contador’s leadership. His performance, while good, has been erratic enough that I can’t say whether he has been riding for himself or not. There certainly have been times when his riding hasn’t seemed to be for the benefit of Contador, but then, in this race anything seems possible.
It is with the impossible in mind that arrive at Samuel Sanchez. Two podium finishes at the Vuelta are maybe on a par with a top-10 at the Tour de France, so almost no one seriously considered this guy to be a podium threat. Sure, he is the leader of Euskaltel-Euskadi, which is something like being a favorite if for no reason other than he is protected (in theory) by eight guys. But a real contender?
I’m beginning to think the battle for the last step of the podium is between Sanchez, Menchov, Gesink and Leipheimer. I think Van Den Broeck will crack, as will Basso, late in the Pyrenees. The fact that there is but one remaining time trial and it is at the end of the race will threaten a GC shuffle, and while we think the likely beneficiaries would be Contador, Menchov and Leipheimer, I refuse to bet. Anything seems possible right now.
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
The Astana team was the single most interesting story at this year’s Tour de France because it was really the only story of the 2009 Tour de France. Without Astana, Saxo Bank would have all but raced away from the rest of the field. During the Tour the conflict emanated from Lance Armstrong’s and Alberto Contador’s dual desires to win the Tour de France. That conflict produced a lot of collateral damage; top was Contador’s relationship with team director Johan Bruyneel. Additionally, rider relationships suffered and even tension emerged between some of the riders and support staff.
Things got weirder even before the Tour ended. Bruyneel had made it known that Alexander Vinokourov wasn’t exactly welcome at Astana. Bruyneel’s lack of interest in working with Astana’s raison d’etre is understandable; he has enough trouble projecting the image that Astana is a team of clean riders without accepting into the fold a rider coming back from a two-year suspension. As a result, Vinokourov issued the classic ultimatum: him or me. So Bruyneel announced his departure and told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, “The reason for my leaving is that Vinokourov is back riding with Astana.”
Indications are that Bruyneel and Vinokourov have reached an uneasy truce by keeping their distance; Bruyneel hasn’t been seen at races Vinokourov in which has competed. It seemed a reasonable solution—avoid each other until Bruyneel’s exit to The Shack.
Which brings up the exodus. Armstrong’s exit was quick and easy; because he was unpaid he never had a contract—boom, he’s gone. Contador wants out but as been reported ad infinitum, he’s got another year on his contract and Astana hasn’t wanted to allow him to buy out his contract. Team Radio Shack has signed Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Yaroslav Popovych, Haimar Zubeldia, Gregory Rast, Thomas Vaitkus and Sergio Paulinho. Swiss riders Steve Morabito and Michael Schar are leaving for BMC. That’s 11 of 28 riders leaving only four riders (Contador, Vinokourov, Dmitriy Muravyev and José Luis Rubiera) who have competed in the Tour de France.
Not so fast. Astana management have noticed the shrinking team and have put the kibosh on the departures of Kloden, Popovych, Zubeldia and Rast. Normally, a support rider buying out his contract is as eventful as purchasing batteries at Radio Shack, but while Astana’s management may have trouble making payroll (the final $2 million installment for the 2009 season has not yet been paid), they can do the math: If the Kazakhstan government loses the sport’s most successful director and every rider who wants to leave, the only veteran left from this year’s Tour de France team will be the beneficiary of Kazakhstan’s version of Affirmative Action: Dmitriy Muravyev. Were all these departures to take place, there’s no way the team would keep its ProTour license which would make it largely irrelevant as an international statement of cycling prowess.
The surprise here is that Astana’s management hasn’t done more to bolster the team by replacing those who have left or want to leave. If you consider just those riders who have definitely left—Armstrong, Leipheimer, Horner, Paulinho, Vaitkus, Morabito and Schar—the team is decimated and needs some serious recruiting. So why isn’t this happening?
The answer may lie in Contador’s woes. He has reported that each time he has a meeting with Astana management that meeting is followed by another meeting in which the new team representative discredits the previous team representative. Contador’s brother and agent, Fran, has refused to negotiate further until team leadership is clarified. If there’s no clear management structure in place (and that seems a reasonable conclusion) then it isn’t terribly surprising what little management there is agrees every rider who can be retained should be.
As a management strategy, it’s very short sighted. Riders can be expected to assist each other at key race times because they will want to have something for their palmarés when it’s time to negotiate with another team. However, morale will suffer and performances will suffer and that will hurt their value, which is why its imperative for Kloden and the rest to get out now. Bruyneel could sit on his hands for the year and The Shack would still want him for 2011; he’d be wanted anywhere.
There’s still time for a happy ending, though not much and perhaps not quite everyone.
Without any new signings, Astana will fall below the 25-rider minimum that the ProTour requires. Without 25 riders the team loses its ProTour status (one can imagine a last-ditch effort by the Kazakhstan government to give a license to any citizen who has won a bike race). With the team’s loss of its ProTour license, Contador could invoke a clause in his contract that grants his release should the team lose its ProTour status. This is one problem a new sponsor’s money can’t solve.
How many teams would have the funds to pay Contador at such a late date? It could be a stretch for Caisse d’Epargne and Contador isn’t likely to accept a cut in pay. However, word is Jonathan Vaughters has a sponsor waiting in the wings; should he land Contador, Garmin-Slipstream becomes Garmin-Somethingelse and Contador gets paid what he’s worth. That might finally give Vaughters reason enough to let Wiggins out of his contract so he can ride for Team Sky, which has more than enough budget to pay him what he’s worth as well as give him unquestioned leadership. A confidential source familiar with the team tells me Wiggins hates the management at Garmin-Slipstream and is desperate to leave.
Were Contador to finally escape Astana a new question would arise. What then of Bruyneel, Kloden, Zubeldia, Popovych and Rast? There’s no word on whether the five have similar ProTour requirement clauses in their contracts. Even if Astana management held them hostage for a year, it is unlikely the team could accomplish much. But after all the turmoil the great irony would be to see Bruyneel manage a decimated Astana led by Vinokourov—the only two people who stated publicly they would never work together, bound to the same team.
Johan Bruyneel’s personal website states he is the “most victorious sports director.” It doesn’t distinguish which sport.
As marketing claims go, this is one that is tough, if not outright impossible, to refute. The man has guided four different riders to an incredible 13 Grand Tour victories—each of the Grand Tours with two riders. Since he retired from racing and became a sports director he has only missed a Grand Tour victory in one year: 2006. You’d have to add the resumes of Jose Miguel Echavarri and Cyrile Guimard to even come close to his achievement. Bruyneel is nothing if not a king maker.
As to those other sports, Don Shula is considered the greatest NFL coach of all time and his Super Bowl record is 2-4. Chuck Noll is 4-0 and he’s only considered fifth best. Phil Jackson’s 10 NBA Championships is a record in that sport. It has taken the New York Yankees several owners and 77 years to amass its 26 World Series titles. And based on my limited research, no FIFA coach comes close to these records.
So one can reasonably make the argument that Bruyneel is the best coach in professional sports.
Does a sport director have an obligation to achieve more at a Grand Tour than win the overall classification? Of course, the answer is yes. There are stage wins, classification jerseys and, yes, overall classification places at stake.
What makes the ’86 La Vie Claire team memorable? First, second, fourth and seventh on GC. In addition to Greg LeMond’s yellow jersey, Bernard Hinault took the polka dot jersey, Andy Hampsten won the white jersey for the best young rider, the team took the team classification and Hinault took the combativity award. And then there were the six stage wins: one each for LeMond, Nikki Ruttimann and Jean-Francois Bernard and three for Hinault.
Astana may have gone into the 2009 Tour de France as the most talent-rich team ever assembled, but this was one supergroup that flamed out before the album was finished. Astana had five riders who had previously finished in the top five on GC; ultimately the team placed two riders in the top five. The team’s only two stage wins came at the legs of Alberto Contador.
So how is it that a team with so much promise couldn’t deliver more? There are several reasons. First, the course worked against them. Because Bruyneel places such emphasis on achieving the overall win, individual exploits that gain team members stage wins (such as George Hincapie’s stage win at Pla d’Adet in 2005) were reined in due to the lack of mountaintop finishes. Overall, the team conserved its efforts in order to be prepared to defend the yellow jersey.
Next, the competition was good, really good. Armstrong stated that he was better than 2003; we have no reason to disbelieve him. The Andy Schleck was a little better on the climbs, Wiggins was better on the TT and Contador was better, well, everywhere. It’s tough to win stages if the field isn’t constantly on the defensive. In ’86, LVC had the competition almost invariably on the defensive.
Finally, Armstrong played the role of teammate as it should be played. While some may see him making the stage 3 split as an offensive move, it was really a defensive move—he didn’t instigate the move but made sure not to lose time. Hinault showed what it looks like to have a teammate attack the yellow jersey on stage 19, the day after the finish atop l’Alpe d’Huez when the team’s leadership was supposed to have been decided. Andy Hampsten said it was one and only time he ever chased a teammate.
The difference between La Vie Claire and Astana is one of inversion. On La Vie Claire, the rider who freelanced was the lesser rider, Hinault. On Astana, it was Contador who went off the playbook. However, the lack of stage wins or other distinctions really can’t be blamed on that, it’s the fact that Armstrong simply didn’t attack Contador on the mountain stages.
The greatest failing of Astana in 2009 was Alberto Contador’s attack on stage 17 on le Grand Bornand. Without that attack the Schlecks would not have moved from fifth and eighth on GC to second and third; it is the single biggest reason Andy Schleck finished on the podium.
Attacking and undermining a teammate’s GC position—two teammates’ positions, in fact—isn’t an unwritten rule, it’s written. Don’t take my word for it. Andy Hampsten said, “A racer in 2nd can’t work with an opponent in 3rd to move them both ahead one place.” While the situations aren’t exactly the same, Hampsten was referring to the reason why LeMond wasn’t permitted to work with Stephen Roche in a breakaway in the ’85 Tour.
I know there are riders out there who think Contador’s attack was justified, but it hurt the team by moving Armstrong down a spot on the GC at the finish in Paris and ensured that Andreas Kloden had no shot at the podium. A sweep of the podium spots (even though it was unlikely Kloden would have overcome Bradley Wiggins) would have been an historic distinction in the modern era for Bruyneel. It would have been a fresh feather for the sport’s best director.
So what went wrong for Bruyneel? In short, Contador. Contador exposed his naiveté to team goals following the 2008 Vuelta by saying after the finish of the race, “I will only say that it’s not normal that someone that is supposed to be working for you finishes less than one minute back in the GC.”
Contador was insecure. Why? Team leadership is earned; it’s not an elected office, and had Leipheimer leapfrogged him in GC on the climb up Navacerrada, what would he have had to be upset about? Any team’s first goal should always be to win the race. For some reason, Bruyneel’s goals for the team weren’t Contador’s goals.
Bruyneel’s job was to reassure Contador that he was the strongest Grand Tour rider in the world. Despite more than adequate evidence to back this up, he didn’t succeed. When Armstrong came out of retirement, the problem only got worse. Put yourself in Bruyneel’s shoes. What would you have said to Contador?
I would have told him, “Relax, let Lance play his games and play his hand. It’ll be good for us. It will confuse the competition in the early days of the race. Rest assured, you’re the strongest rider on the team and you’ll have everyone’s full support. And once Lance knows you’re stronger, he’ll have your back.” Had Lance proven to be stronger, Contador’s freelancing couldn’t have done much to hurt the team. At that point Bruyneel would have been free to say, “I’m sorry Alberto, but my first duty is to win this race and you’re simply not strong enough.”
It’s hard to imagine Bruyneel would have said anything different. But whatever he said, it didn’t work. That’s the stunner. Many sports writers would spin this as Bruyneel’s great failure. I’ve met the man and couldn’t say that to his face, so I won’t say it here. Besides, I just don’t see it that way. It’s a miss, something that didn’t go to plan. I’m sure it is a frustration that has him stymied. Imagine playing a game of chess and not being certain where your queen would move next. It might check the king, but leave a rook open at the same time. Thanks bro.
Contador’s actions will give some of the smarter team directors pause. Even if Tralfamadoreans carried the Schlecks off to mate with Montana Wildhack, I don’t think Riis would hire Contador next year. Will Vaughters still want him if he believes he won’t take direction? Rest assured, he won’t have any trouble finding other employment. There are plenty of teams that want him and three or four that could potentially pay him what he’s worth.
The problem is that even if he didn’t need help this year, he’ll need help next year against Saxo Bank, Radio Shack and Garmin—if they don’t sign him. And thanks to that parting shot about not respecting Armstrong (You may not like him, but what sort of rider wouldn’t respect his accomplishments?), we can all rest assured that even if Radio Shack can’t beat him, they will send nine men to ride against him.
What might make the 2010 Tour de France most memorable is if the sport’s greatest director can defeat the sport’s greatest Grand Tour rider … with a lesser rider.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When Alberto Contador attacked on le Grand Bornand and dropped teammate Andreas Kloden, he did more than just dash Kloden’s hopes for the podium. He torpedoed Astana’s historic bid to sweep the podium of the 2009 Tour de France, a feat not achieved in the modern era of the event. Maybe that didn’t matter to Contador, but this should have: He damaged his team’s ability to defend him on the slopes of Mt. Ventoux.
Had Contador not attacked, it is likely Armstrong would have come back to the leaders, if not on the climb, then on the descent. Given the way Kloden had to raise his pace to try to regain the leaders, Armstrong wouldn’t have had to work as long to pull back the gap. In a lead group of Contador, Kloden, Armstrong, Schleck, Schleck and Nibali, there would have been no reason to gift the stage to Frank Schleck, and Astana, with three cards to play, would have had a good chance of taking the stage.
Coming out of the stage 18 time trial, the GC would have still been Contador in the lead, but Wiggins would have been second at 2:28—enough to dismiss him as a threat to Contador on Mont Ventoux, but Armstrong would have been third at 3:06, with Kloden at 3:10, both close enough to have a real shot at taking second and third overall could they drop Wiggins on Ventoux, an act they both have previously managed. Schleck would be an also-ran to this quartet with obstacles on all sides to GC advancement.
With two teammates so close in time to Contador, their defense of yellow would have been easier by neutralizing virtually any attack before it started. Instead, Contador’s attack lifted the two Schleck’s from 5th and 8th on GC to 2nd and 6th.
As it stands now, there are four riders within 34 seconds of each other, each within striking distance of a podium spot. If Contador hadn’t attacked, he could well have had a tranquil ride up Mont Ventoux, but now the Tour organizer’s very wish—fireworks—is guaranteed on the slopes of the Geante de Provence.
Based on his unwillingness to listen to his team director before attacking on le Grand Bornand, and his previously stated distaste for Levi Leipheimer’s podium finish at the 2008 Vuelta, it is fair to surmise that Contador isn’t comfortable having other capable GC riders on his team. In his particular instance, as both the best time trialist and best climber present at the 2009 Tour de France, we must grant that Contador doesn’t need a team to win the Tour. But what of those riders who toiled for him no matter how superfluous their efforts might seem?
Even Eddy Merckx knew when to throw a domestique a bone. Why deliberately torpedo the aspirations of your teammates? Armstrong had already conceded the win to Contador. Contador said he attacked to neutralize Wiggins. What? Wiggins was already dropped. No one attacks a dropped rider. When you attack, you are attempting to drop someone on your wheel, which makes Contador either a liar or not very bright.
If it seems that I have a personal stake in this, a desired outcome, that’s not the case. I find the possibility of an Astana podium sweep to be an interesting and historic outcome, but I also find historic the possibility of Great Britain’s first podium finish. Wiggins’ transformation from Olympic Gold Medalist on the track to Tour de France contender to be fascinating. And should the two Schlecks take the lower two podium spots that will mean Contador will face a very formidable threat in 2010. Maybe Contador didn’t need a strong team this year, but the confidence that would come with finishing second and third could make the Schlecks a force majeure in 2010.
Carlos Sastre won the 2008 Tour de France not because he was the strongest rider, but because he was on the strongest team and the strongest rider in the race—Cadel Evans—stayed with Andy Schleck when Sastre attacked. Evans knew he couldn’t follow every attack and so he chose to stay with the stronger of the two teammates, hoping they would bring Sastre back. He rolled snake eyes on that one.
The 2010 Tour could play out similarly: Contador on a weak team isolated and Frank Schleck attacks and Contador stays with brother Andy. And who would Contador have to thank for boosting the Schleck’s confidence? Himself.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International