The wind beneath my wings
We all remember when we were kids discovering the joys of riding a bicycle. Sometimes, with friends, we’d whistle a tune or sing songs as we pedaled along. Later, when I got into racing, I found that music was a helpful ally. In a race called The Circuit of Glyndebourne, held on a rolling course through the Sussex countryside on a bright spring day, I found myself humming The Four Seasons hit, “Rag Doll.” I began pushing my pedals to the tune’s metronomic beat, which continued to pound through my head as I went on a solo break. I was pumped, and I barely felt the pain that I should have been feeling.
Music has always played a big role in European bike racing. When I first saw the Tour de France, in 1963, I was watching from a hillside in Normandy when the leading vehicle in the publicity caravan arrived. It was a box-like Peugeot van, and sitting on the roof was the iconic French accordionist, Yvette Horner, playing romantic melodies for spectators at their picnic tables — Paris café music at its best. To this Englishman, it was all so appealingly French!
Horner played her accordion at the Tour for more than a dozen years; she also presented the yellow jersey at most of the finishes before performing at evening concerts in the stage towns. I was reminded of her a few years ago at a Tour stage in the Massif Central when we watched an outdoor screening of “Les Triplettes de Belleville,” the quirky animated film that features a 1950s’ Tour and accordion music by Roberte Rivette, a Horner caricature.
Today, the Tour’s publicity caravan is filled with piped pop music and disco dancers, while the brass band that performs on one of the custom floats is not actually using its trombones and trumpets — they’re just lip-synching. But a real oom-pah band does come from the Netherlands every year, jazzing the crowds at places like Dutch Corner on L’Alpe d’Huez. That band, made up of true cycling fans, also travels to events like the road and cyclocross world championships, where they help establish the party atmosphere that plays such a defining role in this sport.
In the 1970s and ’80s, opera was an integral part of cycling in Italy. RAI television used to open its Giro d’Italia coverage with an inspirational aria, perhaps Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s “Turandot,” while showing sepia scenes of Coppi and Bartali battling over cloud-covered mountains. And the Italian version of Radio Tour would play classical music for long stretches of races when there was no real action. During quieter moments of the Tour, one of my press-car colleagues, a passionate Catalan journalist from Barcelona, Miguel Utrillo, would entertain us with his own operatic outbursts, his favorite being a made-up song about a Pyrenean stage town: “Oooo-ooh, Saint Lary!”
Another indelible memory is Sean Kelly’s phenomenal time trial between his hometown of Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel that won him the 1985 Nissan Classic; the video of his record-setting ride was later set to the hit song “Wind Beneath My Wings,” sung by Sheena Easton. The lyrics well described how the Irish regarded their Sean: “Did you ever know that you’re my hero … I could fly higher than an eagle, ’cause you are the wind beneath my wings.”
There’s also something truly uplifting about the dramatic fanfare-style refrain played before every single presentation at the Tour de France, bringing pomp and dignity to those jersey-awarding ceremonies. But the Tour’s most stirring moments come in Paris, when a military band regularly plays the winner’s national anthem.
After listening mostly to “La Marseillaise” or “La Brabançonne” through the late-1960s, ’70s and early-’80s, it was emotionally moving to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” ring out for the first time in 1986, with Greg LeMond on the top step of the podium. Ironically, there have been no more French or Belgian winners since then, replaced by 10 victories for both the Americans and Spanish, and single breakthroughs for Ireland, Denmark, Germany and Italy. And then, last year for Cadel Evans, we heard the first rendition of “Advance Australia Fair”, unusually and joyfully performed by Aussie singing star Tina Arena.
What does the near-future hold? Maybe Andy Schleck will rightfully bring us Luxembourg’s “Ons Heemecht” for the first time since his countryman Charly Gaul won the Tour in 1958. Or perhaps there will be the first-ever win for a rider from eastern Europe, Africa, Asia or South America. I know that my personal collection won’t be complete until I hear the noble strains of Britain’s national anthem, “God Save The Queen,” echoing off the cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées.
Did anyone say Bradley Wiggins?
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Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
At Pavé, I used to begin each season with a team-by-team rundown of what I considered to be the top-20 teams in the sport, highlighting their goals, expectations, and offering my insights as to their prospects for the new season. But since I’m not sure Padraig has the time or the editorial patience for such an effort, I think I’ll take a bit more of a global approach to looking at the teams and riders you can expect to see building the major storylines of the 2012 season.
Let’s get started with the 2012 Men of the Hour:
Team BMC – After adding Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd to a roster already boasting Cadel Evans, it’s hard not to identify Team BMC as the team to beat in 2012. In the Classics, Gilbert and Hushovd will lead the way supported by “domestiques” such as George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Greg Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt, and—in hillier events—Cuddles himself. In July, the team will be reinforced by the addition of Marco Pinotti, a rider whose personality will fit in well with the “American” team following several years with the with HTC-HighRoad. And as if men such as these were not enough, BMC now boasts two of the most talented and sought-after young Americans of the past few seasons in Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen; both will be looking to make big waves in domestic events such as the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Fabian Cancellara – It says a lot about Radio Shack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara that 2011 was considered a “down year” for the Swiss star. After all, it’s gotta be tough for anyone to follow-up a season in which he won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, several grand tour stages, and a World Time Trial Championship. But despite only winning six races (the biggest of which was the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen semi-classic), Cancellara was an overwhelming force in just about every race he entered—even if he didn’t always win. Look for Cancellara’s “mortal” 2011 to be followed by an “immortal” 2012, as less pressure, an improved team, and—perhaps most importantly—better team management will enable the Swiss Champion to dominate once more.
Belgium – Belgian cyclists enjoyed a succesful 2011; look for more of the same in 2012. But while we can expect men like Gilbert, Boonen, Van Avermaet, and Van den Broeck to dominate the headlines, watch for less-heralded (but no less talented) men such Maxime Monfort, Jan Bakelants, Thomas DeGendt, Jens Keukelaire, and Sep Van Maercke to earn their fair share of praise—and victories. Throw-in talented wild cards like 2011 Monument-winners Nick Nuyens and Johan Van Summeren, and there’s little reason to believe we won’t be hearing more of the Brabançonne (the Belgian National Anthem) at podium ceremonies all over the world.
American Stage Races – With the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the United States now boasts three world-class stage races, events that look certain to attract the world’s best teams and riders for years to come. An even better trend: American athletes are rising to the challenge and not allowing themselves be bullied by their international colleagues. And while 2011 saw two of America’s oldest professionals—Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer—dividing the palmares among themselves, there’s good reason to believe that 2012 will see the next generation of American stars—riders like Van Garderen and Garmin-Barracuda’s Andrew Talansky—mount their own challenges as well. After all, if the sport is to thrive in the Post-Armstrong era, America needs great events and great riders to make it happen.
Peter Sagan – After a breakout season in 2010, Peter Sagan of Team Liquigas continued his development in 2011, winning more races than the previous year and taking his first grand tour stage (three of them, in fact) to boot. To make matters worse—for the competition, that is—Sagan is still only a few days shy of his 22nd birthday. In 2012, I expect we’ll see further signs of the youngster’s progression as he proves that he can be competitive in longer classics and Monuments. For example, he went into Worlds last October as one of the favorites to win the Rainbow Jersey. But Sagan faded in the end to finish a rather uninspiring 12th—after more than 260 kilometers of racing, he just didn’t seem to be as fresh as his rivals. Look for Sagan to have solved this problem as early as Milan-San Remo—a Monument perfectly suited to his skills. After all, last year’s Vuelta a Espana was the first 3-week stage race of his career. While it might have left him fatigued for Worlds, it served as the perfect base for a strong start to 2012. Riders develop form not only over the course of season but over the course of a career. In Sagan’s case, it’s still very early. Each race makes him stronger—and more prepared—for the next.
Dan & Tony Martin – No, they’re not related, but these two men took their careers to the next level in 2011. Dan confirmed the promise he showed in 2009 and 2010 by winning his first grand tour stage and finishing 13th overall at the Vuelta before taking second at the Tour of Lombardy. After such an impressive late season run, look for the 25-year-old Irishman to be a protected rider at Garmin-Barracuda for the Ardennes Classics and to earn a ride in what will be his (long overdue) first Tour de France.
As for Tony, he was arguably one of the best two or three non-Gilbert riders of 2011, winning three stage races (including Paris-Nice and the new Tour of Beijing), stages in the Tour de France and the Vuelta Espana, and perhaps most importantly, a World Time Trial Championship (at the expense of Fabian Cancellara). Only 26-years old, the German now rides for Omega Pharma-Quick Step and is certainly licking his lips at a Tour de France that emphasizes time trialing. While a yellow jersey in Paris might be a bit out of his reach (he has yet to prove himself able to hang with the best of the best in the mountains), a place on the final podium is certainly within his grasp—especially with a relatively flat, 52-kilometer time trial on the penultimate day.
Johan Bruyneel – Other than BMC’s incredible shopping spree, the biggest news this past off-season was the merger of Team Radio Shack and Leopard-Trek, a move that marked a distinct consolidation of power at the top of the sport’s highest tier.
Team general manager Johan Bruyneel’s first task will be developing an early season program that gets Cancellara to peak fitness, while still leaving everyone else guessing as to his form. Last year, Spartacus showed his cards too soon in winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen a week before the Tour of Flanders. An expert in the cloak and dagger game of form-building, Bruyneel needs to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen this spring. Next up: the Tour and the daunting task of picking the nine riders to represent the team. Assuming both Schlecks are automatic invites, that leaves about ten qualified men fighting for the remaining seven spots. Bruyneel will need to delicately balance the condition and the egos of his riders, choosing the right mix for the difficult job of delivering Andy Schleck to Paris in the yellow jersey (which is Bruyneel’s real task). Reclaiming the cobbled classics for Cancellara is one thing; winning a Tour with Andy Schleck is an entirely different proposition. If Bruyneel proves he’s up to it, he’ll forever be known as one of the sport’s greatest director’s.
Team Sky – Were I still putting together a team-by-team ranking of the best squads in the sport, the top-3 would likely be BMC, Radio Shack-Nissan, and Team Sky. After a rather lackluster debut season, Sky started to put it all together last year, winning 32 races, including two stages at the Tour de France, one at the Vuelta Espana, and the overall title at the Criterium du Dauphine. Perhaps more impressively, Sky placed two riders—Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins—on the final podium at the Vuelta an impressive performance given the difficulty of the route. Even better, Sky boasts talented youngsters like Rigoberto Uran, Gerraint Thomas, Ben Swift, and Edvald Boassen Hagen, giving management the makings of the super-team that will be a force in every race it enters for years to come.
But as if last year’s deeply talented roster wasn’t enough, Sky added Mark Cavendish (along with his former HTC mates Bernhard Eisel and Danny Pate) and Richie Porte to the fold. Look for Cavendish to add to Sky’s stage tally at the Tour while preparing himself for a chance at a gold medal in London. As for Porte, his addition will make Team Sky one of the top favorites for the new, trade team-only, World Team Time Trial Championship to be held this coming September.
Alberto Contador – If he races in 2012 (and that’s a big “if”), there is little reason to believe Alberto Contador won’t dominate the 2012 Tour de France. Yes, Cadel Evans is confident after winning in 2011 and motivated by a 2012 parcours that suits his talents. And yes, “Frandy” Schleck will benefit from the wisdom and tactical nous of Johan Bruyneel. And of course, we can’t expect that so many contenders will crash-out during the Tour’s first week. But like it or not, Contador is still—without a doubt—the best grand tour rider on the planet. The fact that he still managed to finish in the Tour’s top-10 so soon after winning what was quite possibly the toughest grand tour ever speaks to the level of his talent. Only the pending CAS decision stands in his way. Then again, we said that last year, didn’t we?
Those are my picks for 2012’s “Men of the Hour”. Share your own picks and comments below.
Coming Soon: 2012’s Up-and-Comers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When I’m out on the bike I get a lot of questions. Mostly they revolve around whatever the newest thing I’m riding, be it bike, clothing or what-have-you. What’s interesting is that the broader, more philosophical questions about equipment come late in a ride. They always have.
After we’ve punched some tickets, gone cross-eyed and been humbled, the late portion of the ride, as we cool down and head for home is when all the most interesting questions come up. They’ve ranged from what my favorite saddle (I’m really partial to the Fi’zi:k Antares) is to whether I’d ride steel on a course with a lot of climbing (um, no).
It was shortly after the Schleck chaingate that a newer rider asked me what group he should buy now that Andy Schleck had demonstrated that the Red drivetrain was defective and in need of an overhaul.
“Easy,” I said. “You should buy the one that never suffers a missed shift.”
Then I gave a hearty laugh.
I hope you’ll pardon me for laughing at my own joke. I laughed long and loud over that. The rider in question didn’t follow me. I left him to ponder what I might have meant.
That belies a common question I get, though: Who makes the best component group?
I’ve got a few thousand miles each on Super Record, Dura-Ace and Red. I can speak to that question. Normally, I don’t like or do shootouts for a simple reason: Someone always loses. That said, there are specific reasons to recommend one group over another depending on your individual needs. For some riders, there may not be a compelling reason to go with one over the others, but for others, there may be a very clear choice.
Needs aside, I believe that each manufacturer is in for some constructive criticism. Each of those groups feature some blemishes that can and should be addressed.
And so, now that RKP’s traffic is big enough that we can’t be ignored, I’m about to embark on a series of posts that could well piss off some really nice people at companies that I previously hoped would advertise. Gulp.
Oh, a brief (but obvious) word on what defines a group. It used to be that a group included shift levers, brake levers, brakes, derailleurs, a bottom bracket, crank set, chain, cables, headset, hubs and pedals. These days integrated headsets are found in most frames, nearly all wheels are sold as complete wheelsets and pedals stopped being sold with groups not long after Look entered the market; a group no longer includes a headset, hubs or pedals.
Like I said, this is going to take a few posts to get through. Keep checking back.
We decided to do some year-end awards here at RKP, but because we don’t see much point in awarding someone “best Danish single-speed cyclocrosser with no ink”, we figured we’d give some nods to those people, events and moments most memorable. And to add to the fun, we invited Whit Yost and Jeremy Rauch from Pavé to join in the fun.
So here we go:
Rider of the Year—Despite not notching a win another monument this spring, by virtue of the fact that Fabian Cancellara finished on the podium in Milan-San Remo (2nd), Ronde van Vlaanderen (3rd) and Paris-Roubaix (2nd), he proved to be the strongest rider in this year’s spring campaign. That Cancellara was chased as if an attack from him was everyone else’s ticket to glory was unseemly. It appeared—given those who latched onto his wheel—he was chased less to prevent him winning than as a springboard to anyone else’s.
Most Valuable (Non) Player—This has to go to Francesco Moser for doing more to liven up this year’s Tour de France short of any rider other than Thomas Voeckler. By instructing the Schlecks on how to win at bike racing, Moser inspired Andy Schleck to take the single most interesting flyer at this year’s Tour. Frankly, it did much to illustrate the criticism that due to radios riders no longer know how to ride tactically. The greater lesson is just how the greats were. How about a mentoring program for today’s GC riders? The racing might get more interesting if we dusted off more GC champions from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The We-Don’t-Know-What-to-Call-It Award—Thor Hushovd has easily been the peloton’s biggest crybaby for the last two seasons. Of his seemingly endless skills—honestly, has anyone else delivered more unexpected and surprising wins?—diplomacy isn’t one. He may be the only guy who could teach Bradley Wiggins a thing or two about badmouthing a previous team. That said, his cunning has proven he is more than worthy of both protection and a free hand. Maybe we should call this one the Wild Card Award. You just never know with this guy.
The Mad Ambition Award—This goes to Jim Ochowicz and the rest of the management at Team BMC. On one hand, they are geniuses for vaulting BMC to the top of the pops in just two years. Their ability to sign riders of real quality was confirmed in a royal flush back in July when Cadel Evans finally won the Tour de France. So how they managed to court and sign both Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd can’t simply be magic; it’s more like sorcery. Evans was on record saying anyone on his Tour team (and it is his Tour team) won’t freelance, won’t go for stage wins and will bury himself for the team. Somehow Gilbert and Hushovd—who between them took three stages of this year’s Tour—claimed they were okay with that. We also give this the Most Likely to End in Tears Award.
The Most Coveted Award—This has to go to Zipp for the new Firecrest 303. There’s not another set of wheels I’ve heard spoken of with a more covetous tone than the redesigned Firecrest 303. Lighter than a supermodel’s brain, more aerodynamic than a Cessna and more durable than any aluminum rim you’re riding, the only question is who doesn’t want this wheel.
The Relief Award—Bike fans breathed a collective sigh of relief with the announcement that Campagnolo will finally begin selling its long-awaited electronic group, EPS. Though we heard that the Italian maker was working on this group back in 2002, Shimano came to market with Di2 a full two years ahead of Campagnolo. This is quite a contrast from the introduction of index shifting and integrated control levers. Shimano’s stuff may have worked better in both instances, but at least Campy had a ready response. The good news is that EPS seems to be kink-free, so this year you’ll be able to enjoy electronic shifting and 11-speeds all in the same group.
Worst News of the Year Award—The demise of HTC-Highroad. To have Bob Stapleton depart cycling is the worst news the sport will get for a long, long time.
The Textbook Courage Award—If you needed any proof of the talent at Andy Schleck’s disposal, his attack on Stage 18 from Pinerolo to the Galibier in this year’s Tour de France showed exactly what the young and often hapless Luxembourger is capable of. Down on GC and running out of road, Schleck had to do SOMETHING. What he did was one of the most courageous and awe-inspiring attacks we’ve seen this decade. First, Leopard – Trek put Joost Posthuma and Maxime Monfort into the break. Then, Schleck attacked with 60km to go, took a gap, stretched it to two minutes and then latched onto Posthuma and Monfort to stretch his lead, ending just 15 seconds out of yellow, as Tommy Voekler buried himself on the imposing slopes of the Galibier. This is the racing fans have always wanted from Schleck, but he has seldom delivered. Cautious to a fault, on this day Schleck was a legend.
The Have No Cake and Fail to Eat It Either Award—I, for one, thought it was a good idea for Zdenek Stybar to try his luck on the road, especially with a Classics-oriented squad like QuickStep. Unfortunately, Stybie flopped in his first season and has now relinquished his dominance of the Euro Cyclocross World Cup Series to Kevin Pauwels. What’s the Flemish for “Oops?”
The Straight Face Award—It’s been 18 months since Alberto Contador tested positive at the Tour de France. The saga of inaction since then is well-documented. Under WADA guidelines, it doesn’t matter how or why the “adverse analytical finding” came about, the rider should be suspended, and yet Contador has argued, with a straight face, that he deserves to ride, and UCI head Pat McQuaid has gone on as if the fleet Spaniard isn’t receiving preferential treatment. If we say up is down long enough, will we all learn to fly?
The Ricco Suave Award—This award is reserved for dopers who approach the rank stupidity of Ricardo Ricco in their efforts to cover their tracks and/or protest their innocence. This year’s award goes to Ezequiel Mosquera. After a positive test for hydroxyethyl starch at the 2010 Vuelta, at which he was runner-up, Mosquera cried foul. But the test for hydroxyethyl starch has been around a long time, and that substance’s use as a masking agent for doping products is well-documented. Compounding Mosquera’s guilt, one of his Xacobeo-Galicia teammates, David Garcia, also tested positive for the same substance at the same race. The Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) rewarded Mosquera’s cheating with a two year ban ON TOP of the 14 months he’s already been off the bike. The rider has said he’ll retire. Don’t do us any favors Ezequiel.
Cyclist of the year—All new cyclists. They may be annoyances right now. They might reduce our cool, bad-boy cred. They may do stupid things in the road, at lights, on the trail, etc. But they’re making the world a better place for us. Growing the sport makes the roads safer, will eventually make the public more sympathetic, and some day, some of them will be giving us their draft as they pummel us in their wake. Cycling is growing so much that some places, like New York City, are experiencing a backlash. I think the backlash will be shortlived. We’re going to win and all new cyclists are helping.
The “Why Would Anyone Need X” award:
This year saw a number of new technical innovations: some good, some bad, but all the victim of some variant of the pace-line putdown “Why would anyone need <insert component here>”. The list of what would surely be past winners is long and filled with the things we take for granted today, and would surely include clipless pedals (“Too dangerous in a crash!”), index shifting (“I don’t need click-shifting to find my gear!”), Di2 (“If I wanted to play video games, I’d just stay home and play Nintendo!”) and 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and yes, 12 speed rear clusters (“Why would anyone need more than 5/6/7/8/9/10/11 speeds?”).
2011′s award, based on the seemingly never discussions on the topic, goes to disc brakes in cyclocross. With a battle cry of “if they were good enough for De Vlaeminck*, they’re good enough to me”, the canti-devoted dismissed the disc as unnecessary – too heavy, too powerful, not hydraulic, and just plain pointless. It’s true that the disc options when using brifters are incomplete; quality cable actuated brakes like those from Avid aren’t quite as effortless as hydraulics, and the mechanical/hydraulic adapters look like a mechanical in the making. That said, any mountain biker will tell you there’s no denying the performance of discs in the muck. Wet or dry, discs just work. It’ll take a few years for vendors to come up with ideal, rather than adapted solutions to discs in cyclocross. But when they do, I suspect the naysayers will see their benefits and at the very least, wish they were on discs too. Hey, give me hydraulic brifters, and I just might be willing to move off this 9 speed setup – because really, more than 9 speeds is silly, but disc brakes are awesome.
The shut-up and ride award—By now, we’ve all seen the video of Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland getting whacked by the errant media car in Stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France. Both men suffered injuries that would have sent most of us crawling into an ambulance or at least the broom wagon. What was impressive, though, is that both of them got up, finished the stage and then made it all the way to Paris nearly two weeks later. It’s a story worth bringing up next time one of your non-cycling friends tries to tell you that American football players are the toughest athletes on the planet.
The great French hope—It was fun to watch Thomas Voeckler reprise his 2004 role as the beloved – but doomed – defender of the yellow jersey. (Voeckler actually earned the jersey as part of the aforementioned break from which Hoogerland and Flecha were taken out.) Voeckler is now 32 and his years may be numbered. It was inspiring to see the entire Europcar squad rise to the occasion and protect the jersey for 10 stages … all the way up to stage 19 when another member of the team earned the spotlight and maybe even signaled the start of what would be a welcomed renaissance in French cycling. Pierre Rolland showed more than a flash of brilliance on the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez, out-classing Samuel Sánchez and Alberto Contador atop that storied climb. Not only did he win the stage, he grabbed the best young rider’s white jersey for good and finished the Tour in 11th on GC. Like another promising young rider in the season’s final grand tour, you have to wonder what this guy could have accomplished had he not been saddled with domestique duties for most of the race.
Maybe, just maybe, we will see an end to the French drought at the Tour, a race the hosts haven’t won since 1985.
Out of Africa―Having grown up in in Kenya and South Africa, Chris Froome showed he was more than able to meet the challenges of the European peloton in this year’s Vuelta a España. Froome finished second in the Vuelta and one can only imagine how the 26-year-old Team Sky rider would have fared had he not been obligated to ride in support of Bradley Wiggins at critical moments in that grand tour. As is the case with Rolland, I’m looking forward to seeing Froome ride without other obligations holding him back.
The No-Man-Is-an-Island Award―This last one is purely personal. Not to beat a dead horse, but I’ve hit a few rough spots over the past few months. Had you told me in January that things would have taken the turn they did in July, I would have predicted that I would just curl up in a ball and stay in bed. The darn thing, though, is that there are folks out there who just wouldn’t let that happen. Anything that I’ve accomplished or anything positive that has happened to me over the past months is purely due to the fact that people have been generous and spectacular. I have to extend my thanks to a host of people, including the gang over at NYVeloCity.com, their readers, the folks who follow me at LiveUpdateGuy.com, countless friends and family and, of course, those responsible for my new home here at Red Kite Prayer. I can’t even begin to count the ways that I have reason to be thankful. All of you gave real meaning to the words “cycling community.”
Most Disappointingly Successful Stage Race-Winning Strategy—Thanks to victories by Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, and Juan José Cobo in this season’s grand tours, it was easy to overlook a rather unexciting “trend” in the art of winning stage races. Of the eleven non-grand tour stage races on the 2011 World Tour, eight had at least one time trial. Of those eight, seven were won by men who took either only the time trial or no stage wins at all, a race-winning strategy calling to mind Miguel Indurain.
Take Bradley Wiggins for example. The Brit from Team Sky won the Criterium du Dauphiné—without winning a single stage. The same can be said of RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer at the Tour de Suisse. Both riders used top rides in individual time trials as the foundations of their victories then simply hung-on for dear life in the mountains. Of course, both victories were well deserved—after all, consistency goes a long way—but race fans can’t be blamed for wanting to see a bit more aggression from their champions. At least Germany’s Tony Martin actually won stages (both time trials, though) at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Beijing for HTC-HighRoad on his way to taking both overall victories.
What does it all mean? Not much, perhaps. But it could inspire more time trialists to find some climbing legs for a week every now and again. Or maybe a few of the sport’s aggressive riders might find themselves spending some time in the wind tunnel or behind a motor scooter, doing their best to defeat the sport’s Martin’s, Wiggo’s, and Leipheimer’s at their own game.
Then again, this is professional cycling—there are no style points. Victories bring contracts and unless your name is Thomas Voeckler, no one cares about how much excitement you generate in losing. We need to give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
I ache for Thomas Voeckler. I ache for Andy Schleck. I ache for the end of the Tour de France.
In a tweet today David Millar wrote that as he rode in his car back to the hotel they approached a rider in Europcar kit; they slowed and Millar turned to lock eyes with a “tired and broken” Voeckler, adding, “Tragic doesn’t come close to describe.”
The cynical among us will gouge Voeckler for hubris, for dreaming the impossible. To do so is to inject cyanide into the very notion of ambition. That he discovered immortality seemingly within his grasp and dared reach for it is to be human. I admire that he maintained humility enough to insist that he would lose the race even as it was obvious he’d mortgage his home for an extra 20 watts.
That he rode the finest time trial of his life today is, perhaps the greatest honor he could bestow on himself and the race; yes, he honored the Tour de France today with his ride. It was his greatest ride because it showed his real character. Unlike so many riders who slink to the back of the field to nurse their destroyed legs once a win slips from grasp, Voeckler did the unthinkable. He continued to ride like a contender, even when it would no longer reward him. How else do you tell the world you’ve come to believe, not just in yourself, but even that you’re a part of what may be a new cycling?
That again. Yes, I do believe that his performance says that the peloton is cleaner. Kolobnev and his new honorific aside—don’t get me started—what I hope, what I’d like to think is that for the riders who may really achieve something noteworthy, maybe they’ve gotten the message that those of us who actually care about the sport want them to do it without the drugs. Voeckler has, for my money, delivered the defining ride of this year’s Tour de France. I’ll always remember 2011 for Cadel Evans’ victory, but I hope that the years don’t fade Voeckler’s ride in yellow for me. For each of us who ever dared dream, his days in yellow and his ride today testify to what we may find within reach.
Next year, he’ll arrive with the bit between his teeth. For that, I can’t wait.
If you’d asked me yesterday how I’d feel once Evans accomplished what most of us thought was an essentially foregone conclusion, I’d have told you I’d be happy for him. He rode with confidence and authority. Who knows if the tactical genius that caused him to conserve when possible and burn any time he needed to deliver was his or his director’s. It hardly matters. His yellow jersey is our res ipsa loquitur.
What surprises me is how I view the remarkable reversal of fortune Andy Schleck has suffered. Second. Again. The comparisons to Raymond Poulidor are unavoidable now. Even if he does win someday, his record will be compared to every great rider who failed more than he succeeded. Unless, of course, this is the last of his non-wins for a while.
And while I do think he’s likely to win at some point, I’ll tell you now, unless Contador makes the same mistake again next year (if you can call victory in the Giro a mistake—and I know that’s a real stretch), the Spaniard will arrive at the start with a thirst for blood that even Eric Northman would admire. I don’t plan to bet against him.
I’ve been rough on Contador in the past. Let me say this: His ride will be a more enduring feature of this year’s race than Fränk Schleck’s was. He rode with determination and pride, even after he knew he couldn’t win. He never capitulated, and in that regard, he and Voeckler have something in common.
It’s fair to wonder if Contador will be at next year’s Tour, depending how the CAS proceeding goes. Its postponement has turned his case into a goat parade: something so stupidly slow and pointless that no one can bear to watch. Should the case against him be upheld and a suspension imposed, I say let it stand for time served. Re-writing this year’s Tour de France will be as distasteful as a shot of straight alcohol. Isopropyl, that is.
Whatever he may or may not have done last year was last year, if he doesn’t test positive this year, then let the clean result stand.
Back to Schleck the younger: I think I have some sense of his pain. The buildup to him taking the maillot jaune off Voeckler was so slow and yet seemingly assured as to be steamroller inevitable. To see him stripped of it only 24 hours later was a change in tempo that would rattle any audience. I wonder just how comfortable he allowed himself to get in that jersey. Did he sleep in it last night just so he could have it against his body for as long as possible? We can’t fault him for hoping; Voeckler taught that master class. Still, no one can be surprised by this outcome and there surely is pain in that for Schleck.
Tomorrow the Tour de France ends, and that is my biggest ache of all. For me, the end of the Tour is nearly the end of summer itself. Monday has the crushing letdown that December 26 did when I was a child. Perhaps this is what a heroin or coke addict feels when they crash. That first post-Tour ride bears an emptiness in the air. It’s as if summer itself has gone stale. I buck up after a few days, but it’s been this way for me since ’86.
Finally, cycling isn’t really known for tracking its own statistics particularly well. We roll blindly into each new season, often without any clue as to what the past tells us about it. A fair chunk of my work for peloton magazine has looked at the sport’s history and what it tells us about some of our greatest racers and races. While I think numbers can be manipulated for nefarious purposes with greased ease (just consider gasoline), the Tour has something to say about Evans’ looming win. Tomorrow afternoon, the Aussie will become—at age 34—the oldest first-time winner of the Tour de France in the modern age.
What I think this tells us is that as racers have become more disciplined about all aspects of their training, from diet to rest to number of days raced, they are extending their careers. This shouldn’t surprise us; crashes notwithstanding, this is how guys like Jens Voigt and Chris Horner remain useful—scratch that, strong—with their 40th birthday around the corner.
There may be hope for us all.
Vive le Tour.
Image: Chris Wallis, Photosport International
There’s only one question we can ask on a day like today and it’s the question you’ve been waiting for:
Who will don the yellow jersey in Paris?
We didn’t ask before now because we knew that it would take this long for the question to either be worth asking or pointless in asking.
Though three riders (Schlecks 1 & 2 and Cadel Evans) are separated by less time than it takes for the average man to answer the call of nature, it seems fair to call this a two-man race: Andy and Evans. Fränk will have to pedal for all he’s worth as well to try and preserve a second place he’s likely to lose to Evans, but it seems unlikely he’ll overhaul his brother for the win. In fact, the most likely scenario for Fränk to keep his second place is if Andy has a collapse on the road (figurative rather than literal) and Evans leapfrogs the brothers into the lead.
But what do we know? We were wringing our hands at the prospect of Alberto Contador making this race less than exciting. He did precisely the opposite, though for reasons he’s probably not wild about.
Also, do you think Thomas Voeckler has any chance of ascending the podium?
And just to make this interesting, if someone can guess the top three and their final GC time gaps +/- five seconds, you’ll get an RKP cycling cap. Make sure to post your comment before the start of stage 20.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
And we thought we’d seen surprising riding.
To this point in my life, today’s stage 18 is the single most thrilling single stage of what has already been the single most surprising and dramatic Tour de France in memory.
Lest anyone have harbored any doubts that this was the most exciting and unpredictable Tour de France in a generation, today served as the incontrovertible evidence that we haven’t seen a Tour this wide-open since most of the audience started school. To quantify the number of variables still in play that could determine the final podium of the Tour de France hardly seems possible. I’ll put it in perspective this way: Were this a Hollywood script, the Schleck brothers would be condensed into a single character and Basso and Cunego would have been written out of the storyline in the Pyrenees, along with Contador. Voeckler, Evans and just one Schleck is about the maximum that the average Hollywood script doctor will accept. Tinseltown prefers its conflicts binary, just like football.
Those many storylines are what make stage 18 superior to Greg LeMond’s victory in the final time trial of the ’89 Tour de France (or any other stage of that year’s Tour), Floyd Landis’ reversal-of-fortune ride to Morzine, dare I say, even Lance Armstrong’s 2003 win atop Luz Ardiden on a broken bike.
Armstrong went into that stage with only 15 seconds on Jan Ullrich and 18 seconds on Alexandre Vinokourov. However, The Euskaltel duo of Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo were more than four minutes back and guaranteed to lose boatloads of time in the final time trial, so everyone watching knew there were only three guys who could win the Tour.
Going into today’s stage less than four minutes separated the top eight on GC. By this point in the race, we don’t ordinarily have so many riders seemingly in contention.
Here was the GC this morning before the start:
|Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar||
|Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team||
|Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||
|Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||
|Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi||
|Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard||
|Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre – ISD||
|Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale||
|Tom Danielson (USA) Team Garmin-Cervelo||
|Rigoberto Uran (Col) Sky Procycling||
Of the top eight, only Cunego and Basso really had ceased to be spoken of with the reverent tones reserved for potential victors. Each of the top six were a storyline unto themselves. Voeckler was defying the odds. Evans was riding like a potential winner. Fränk Schleck was the one of Leopard-Trek’s one-two punch. Brother Andy was the whiny but gifted climber who made the threat of his brother so dangerous. Sammy Sanchez was strong, courageous, unpredictable and … willing to work for Contador. And Contador, though he seemed not to be his usual self, was still too strong to be disregarded.
The younger Schleck’s attack may have worked for one simple reason: Contador didn’t have the legs to respond. Had he been stronger, it seems likely he wouldn’t have allowed last year’s bridesmaid to ride up the road, so strong is the rivalry between the two. Following his terrible descending in the rain on stage 15, Schleck did a fair drop down the Col d’Izoard on his way to catching teammate Maxime Monfort; that alone made his attack redemptive.
For years, the GC race at the Tour has been derided because the players wait for the final climb and then attack with everything they have. At last, with Schleck’s attack, we saw an act of courage, where in his own words he was “all in.” Schleck even admitted that the ride could have gone either way
We’ve entered an era where the afterburner attacks must be used rarely and late in the stage, if at all. The question of what we’re left with as options was answered less by Schleck than the old fox, Francesco Moser, who we are told spent some time with the brothers last night. Though Moser never triumphed at the Tour, he knows a thing or two about wily victories.
Can we give Moser some sort of prize for helping to animate the race? In truth, he did little more than remind the Schlecks of how Grand Tours were won during the age of Merckx. Tonight, all the contenders will go to bed seeing this race with new eyes.
It took guts and determination for Evans to tow the shrinking peloton the way he did. It’s an inglorious path to victory, but he has proven he won’t go surrender to anyone. And for those who wonder why he allowed Andy to ride up the road, when he was clearly such a threat, it was the smartest thing he could do with brother Fränk sitting on his wheel. A counterattack by Fränk could have destroyed Evans’ ambitions, which are only currently wounded.
Both Voeckler and Contador have conceded defeat, the latter just this afternoon, the former every day since he donned the jersey. What’s comical here is how we have every reason to believe Contador and zero reason to believe Voeckler. Never in the Tour de France has a rider spoken more derisively of his chances while riding with such determined ferocity. He’s not giving up and the only thing coming out of his mouth that we can trust is carbon dioxide.
Perhaps the most mysterious ride of the day was delivered by Voeckler’s teammate, Pierre Rolland. As the one teammate left in the lead group on the Galibier, he would have been an obvious choice to help Evans with pace making. Based on his one trip to the front, it seemed that he didn’t have the horsepower to help much, but I suspect there was an additional force at work. Should an additional attack have come (that one didn’t says a lot about how infernal Evans’ pace was), Rolland was there to help pace Voeckler back to the leaders. He was the proverbial ace up the sleeve, as proven by the fact that he finished sixth on the stage.
Only 1:12 separates four riders with a classic Alpine stage to go. Unfortunately for Thomas Voeckler, even if he doesn’t lose a second to either Schleck on l’Alpe d’Huez, he is likely to lose at least a minute to Andy in the time trial. Last year Voeckler—with no pride or classification on the line—gave up almost three minutes to Schleck in the final, 52km, ITT. Even if he rides out of his skin on this 41km test, preserving his lead seems unlikely.
That’s a shame. A spot on the podium is an inadequate reward for Voeckler’s revelatory ride, his tenacity, his poker, his leap of faith in himself.
But the real man of the day is Andy Schleck, who presented himself to us today as a man of real courage, a man of daring. Of course, Schleck’s daring is minor when compared to what Contador attempted. If Alberto-freakin’-Contador can’t pull off the Giro-Tour double at the age of 28, with six consecutive Grand Tour wins under his belt, then I say we are unlikely to see it accomplished again. Armstrong knew not to attempt such a sweep. Will this chasten Contador from trying again? And what does this spell for his relationship with Riis?
With three days to go, only one thing seems certain: Whoever stands atop the podium in Paris will have earned our respect on their way to a deserved win.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
If you’d asked me before the Tour started to list ten things that might happen during this year’s race, I don’t think the list would have included Alberto Contador losing time on multiple stages. I wouldn’t have suggested Andy Schleck would pull up timid on a rainy Alpine descent and brake his way out of contention. And I certainly wouldn’t have listed an assertive ride by a yellow-jersey-wearing Thomas Voeckler as perhaps the best single piece of evidence that the peloton is cleaner than it once was. God knows I wouldn’t have envisioned Thor Hushovd winning two mountain stages.
Nope, I wouldn’t have considered any of those as even remotely possible. But every one has come to pass.
With his ride in stage 16 Contador has proven that to count him out is to define foolhardy. I’m doubtful of his chances to win, but one can afford to be nonchalant in his presence the way one can be nonchalant around a cobra. Even if he can manage 15 or 20 seconds on all his rivals over the three remaining mountain stages and the time trial, that won’t be enough to boost him onto the podium.
One wonders whose ambition it was to even dream Contador could sweep all three Grand Tours this year. Was it Contador himself or was it Bjarne Riis? And if it was Riis, what will the repercussions be should Pistolero not pull a rabbit out of his hat before Paris? If Contador can’t pull off this victory, the age of the Giro-Tour double will truly have passed.
With the piece of descending we saw Schleck exhibit on the drop into Gap, the timidity that resulted in him losing 1:09 to Cadel Evans and 1:06 to Contador probably dashed his hopes to win this Tour. Frankly, his riding was so un-PRO that he doesn’t deserve the podium.
Darwin wrote that the story of the world was one of adaptation, descent with modification. Faced with obsolescence at the legs of Mark Cavendish, Hushovd has reinvented himself more thoroughly than any rider since Laurent Jalabert’s phoenix act in the 1990s. I consider him one of the three smartest riders in the race. He is the embodiment of the adage, “le tete et le jambs.”
As to Voeckler, he was already on what is arguably the best season he has ever enjoyed even before arriving at the Tour. So we must grant that he’s a better rider than he was in 2004, the first time he took the yellow jersey at the Tour. That said, in the era of Armstrong et al, sheer combativeness and tenacity weren’t enough to hold on to yellow. To suggest that will alone is enough is to believe that you really can stop a bullet by putting your finger in the barrel of a gun.
French cycling has been very nearly the laughingstock of the peloton since the Festina Affair. I’ve wondered if French athletes didn’t take some lesson from the incident to heart. Following the confessions that came as a result of the Festina Affair only six French athletes have tested positive (many countries have had two dozen or more), and the only one of them who was a notable GC rider was Pascal Hervé (yes, he of the Festina Affair), and that was in 2001.
I’ve often thought the fact that there has been only one prominent French GC rider (Christophe Moreau) in the last 10 years and the fact that French cycling has been curiously devoid of doping scandals weren’t just coincidences. I see it as cause and effect.
There’s an arc to this story. French riders were late to the EPO wagon; the Netherlands and Italy led the way, but they caught up, and in a big way, which is why Richard Virenque was one of the most feared climbers in the peloton during that time. And then we get Willy Voet’s ill-fated border crossing and Virenque’s teary confession in front of a judge.
To me, that past, those details and now Voeckler’s performance en jaune are of a piece. If you’re at your limit because the peloton rides at two speeds, then there’s no way for you to respond to an acceleration by a certified contender like Ivan Basso. That is, not unless everyone’s on the same program.
This is guesswork on my part; educated, but still guesswork. Still, it leads me to say that I find it easier to believe that Basso and Contador are clean than Voeckler is dirty. If we can have guilt by association, then maybe we can have innocence by association, too.
After all the scandals, the mudslinging, the unsubstantiated accusations and crazy revelations, the best possible thing that could happen for cycling right now is for Thomas Voeckler to arrive in Paris, clad in yellow. I’m not willing to put five bucks on that happening just yet, but it’s an outcome I’d cheer for, just the way I cheered in 1999.
Image, John Pierce, Photosport International
On this, the Sunday of the Tour, I’ve been taking stock of the race up until now. The short answer is that this is one of my favorite editions of the Tour in years, probably since the 1990s. I like the Tour best when the race seems wide open, when the obvious drama of the event is how its outcome can’t be guessed by either experts or its newest followers.
To be sure, I think the eventual winner will have the last name of either Evans or Schleck, but that’s three possible outcomes and a bad day by any of them could open the door to Basso, Contador or—gasp—Sanchez or even—double gasp—Voeckler! Jens Voigt observed that Voeckler is riding on credit; few would argue that he hasn’t already overdrawn his account. But while we’ve been waiting for him to fold as any interloper is supposed to do according to the race’s script, he has shown more than mere tenacity. His surges to bring back the likes of Basso and Schleck seemed to irritate Schleck the younger, judging from his elbow waves.
What I saw in Voeckler was a man who will not go quietly, won’t concede that he’s a pretender to the throne. I can’t recall seeing a rider more out of his element ride with greater courage than when Voeckler launched that massive acceleration to go after Basso.
What has surprised me is how many journalists, bloggers and friends have complained of uninteresting and negative racing. Perhaps I was watching a different race. What I saw on stage 14 looked like the sixth round of a ten-round title fight. Each of those attacks would have crumpled mortal riders. Watching for who might attack next and when the attack did come watching for who was slow to respond kept me leaning into the TV and breathless.
We have four mountain stages left. The first two end with descents (yay, I like descents), while the final two end atop hors categorie climbs. Tomorrow’s stage into Gap is one where a breakaway with no-name riders might, finally, work. We’re bound to see some fireworks on the climb to Sestrieres, but it’s unlikely to result in any significant shakeup to the GC. Would could be interesting, though, is the steep descent off of the Cote de Pramartino with less than a half kilometer of flat to the finish. I wouldn’t be surprised if Voeckler punched it on the descent.
Some race fans won’t like it, but the big moves that decide the race will happen on the Galibier on their way to Serre Chevalier. The riders can’t afford to wait for l’Alpe d’Huez to try to blow the race apart. The Col Agnel is, based on my experience, steep enough that many domestiques will be rendered useless long before the race reaches the foot of the Col d’Izoard.
A word on stage 19: It’s as classic a mountain stage as can be devised. Begin the day with a downhill warmup to the foot of the Col du Telegraphe. After 12km of climbing, give them a brief (4km) descent to recover before throwing them at one of the most feared climbs in cycling, the 18km up to the Col du Galibier. Don’t expect a break including any favorites to go there, though. The descent from the top of the Galibier to the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez is nearly 50km and except for the upper portion of the Galibier, it’s not a technical descent; a group can haul ass (that’s a technical term) for le Bourg d’Oisans.
We can forgive the riders if they seem a bit conservative, even tentative. While the stage 14 attacks can’t be called timid, the responses in most cases were an only-as-much-as-necessary effort to keep the opposition in check. With the race this tight, one wrong move could dock you six spots on GC.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Today was an example of precisely why the Tour de France is the greatest annual sporting event on the planet. We had a real bike race. While we couldn’t seem to have a day go without at least one significant crash (Andreas Klöden), the real thrust of the day was the racing not some tangential drama.
The biggest surprise of the day was being reminded that this was Samuel Sanchez’ first Tour stage win. He’s a rider of such colossal talent that a Tour stage missing from his palmares felt a bit like an oversight. Yet his ride was hardly the best of the day.
I’ve secretly had my money on Frank Schleck for this year’s race. I think he has the maturity his brother lacks and this year his form seems at least equal to his brothers, maybe even better. To watch him ride up the road and see the weak response reminded me of the sort of glee I feel when the bad guy gets killed in a horror movie, not that I think Cadel Evans or any of the other GC favorites are bad guys, mind you.
Which naturally brings me to Alberto Contador. It is my sincere hope that his performance today wasn’t hampered by his knee. I respect that a rider beaten is a rider beaten, but my personal belief is that whoever wins the Tour—should it turn out not to be him—deserves to know he beat him straight up.
I’ve suspected that Ivan Basso’s near-anonymous performance up until now was the result of him saving himself. Today’s late-race surge supports that. Seeing him work with Evans to try to pull back time on Schleck with Contador struggling to maintain contact and Schleck the younger dutifully playing the scavenger and just sitting on Contador’s wheel was, pardon me, a thrilling bit of racing.
Nearly as great a surprise as today’s win being Sanchez’ first Tour stage was how little time Thomas Voeckler gave up to Schleck and Evans. It was a stunning piece of racing and gave rise to my favorite performance of the day:
Long after every other team’s last domestique had Roman Candled their legs earlier on the mountain, Rolland not only stuck by his charge, but helped pace him back into the lead group following accelerations that were more than Voeckler could handle. It doesn’t hurt, either, that his service was such that the casual viewer of the Tour wouldn’t appreciate the work he put in, the difficulty of the task he accomplished. The finish line hug between the two was one of those private moments between teammates, not meant for our eyes, even if it did happen on the world stage.
As for the mighty RadioShack, they have two riders in the top 20 on GC. It’s not the sort of performance anyone expected from Johan Bruyneel’s team and probably not the sort of performance that would cause RadioShack to renew their contract at the end of this year.
And what would a day at the Tour without a little more love for Johnny Hoogerland? That he took off on the unknown Horquette d’Ancizan (a climb whose difficulty I can attest to) and attempted to build a gap to gain more points in the king of the mountains competition was the best. I don’t mind that he lost the jersey today; that was inevitable. However, I am bummed he didn’t manage to pick up a single point. I’d have loved the statement that would have made. His attempt was more than enough, though.
When Monty Python and the Holy Grail is finally re-made, Hoogerland will play the knight who says, “It’s only a flesh wound.”
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International