I’m going to let you in on a little secret: For an American cycling journalist, historic pieces on the Tour de France are our stock-in-trade. There’s nothing easier or more fun to write. And they are even easier to sell. Why? Because the story lines are all so straightforward. You’ve got LeMond vs. Hinault in 1986. Then you’ve got LeMond vs. Fignon in ’89. LeMond vs. Chiappucci in ’90. Armstrong vs. Ullrich in ’00, ’01 and ‘03, just for starters. They are almost boxing matches in their simplicity. Despite the other 190-odd riders present, those Tours were mano-a-mano matches.
The ’86 Tour is king is this regard because of the intra-team rivalry between Hinault and LeMond. On top of the interloping Yank, you’ve got broken promises, the pressure of the media and a team that wasn’t afraid to split along partisan lines. Most burgers aren’t this juicy.
I lay that before you as a backdrop to what I have to say about the ’12 Tour. It is, for me, the most disappointing Tour de France I’ve seen since perhaps ’94 and ’95, which had drama the way Congress has compromise. The most interesting thing happening on the road is Tejay Van Garderen for the simple fact that he’s the most unknown of quantities. And this isn’t just a jingoistic yearning for the next Hampsten, which is to say a climber of such aw-shucks sincerity and tremendous gifts he is realizing he doesn’t know the world before him.
The thing about Van Garderen is that the world is littered with riders who were flashes in the pan, young riders who showed flashes of greatness only to ride anonymously for the rest of their careers. But there are also the stories of LeMond, Fignon and Hinault who showed greatness early on and then delivered over and over and that’s why Van Garderen’s ascension to team leader for BMC is a much more interesting story line than Cadel Evans’ collapse. Did he never really get in shape this year? Has he been sick for most of the Tour and the team has played coy? Whatever. Who really cares enough to read beyond the possible headline: Evans Admits He’s Over the Hill.
Off the course, all the drama is to be found in the interviews with Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins. Poor Froome. He deserves credit for sticking to the game plan and pledging his support to Wiggins and his team to any microphone within range. That he has managed to keep his cool despite the obvious provocations from the media, invitations from the world’s biggest media outlets to go rogue isn’t Jesus-in-the-cinnamon-bun miraculous, but it’s as impressive as anything I saw in the recent X Games.
Having said that, let’s take a moment to parse the future, or even a couple of futures. First, once Wiggins wins this Tour, we all know he will start last and wear #1 at the start of next year’s Tour. It’s silly to suggest that he’ll be anything other than Sky’s captain, unless some calamity befalls him during the spring. Any suggestion that maybe next year would be Froome’s turn is laughable. Not if Wiggins is on-form. Now, could Froome leave and assume the leader’s role at another team? Sure. But unless that team has a history of properly supporting a grand tour champion (think Saxo Bank, not Omega Pharma-Quickstep), he shouldn’t buy that yellow watch just yet.
There. I think I’ve covered all the interesting story lines from this year’s Tour, unless you want to include all the message board chatter by American viewers who are tired of Scott Moninger’s interlaced-fingers-jabber and begging for Todd Gogulski.
Back in undergraduate school I wrote a paper for a history class in which I analyzed the rise of Moammar Gadhafi as American enemy #1. I noted that in 1985 he wasn’t much different or doing different things than he was in 1978. The big change was the end of the Iranian hostage crisis. Once Iran stopped being our biggest international problem, once the Ayatollah Khomeni stopped being the villain-at-large, we needed someone new. Qadaffi fit the bill.
What this Tour lacks is a villain. Froome is the best candidate, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to wear the black hat. And he’s smart to beg off. If he went off the res he’d be far less attractive to courting teams. The first question on everyone’s mind would be whether or not he was coachable—capable of sticking to the script. Hell, the Schlecks make it look like they are sticking to the script and they are difficult enough, Frank’s B sample notwithstanding.
Yes, we need a villain, but not everyone is up to the task. Alberto Contador has a thick skin, thick enough to play the villain and play it well. Hinault had an even thicker skin, which is saying something. To play the villain, one must understand that though you may lose the hearts of the fans, there’s a kind of satisfaction in infamy.
It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
I was very fortunate during last year’s Tour to be unemployed. I am able to say that now, in retrospect, because after quitting a job on principle, I got the job I most wanted. At the time of course, I was nervous. Who quits a job on principle in an economy like this one?
My emergency job search turned up three good prospects, two of which I thought would be easy to get based on my qualifications and connections, the third was the job I have now, the one I really wanted. It was the long shot, and it came through. I was lucky, and as cycling teaches us over and over again, it’s better to be lucky than good.
As it turns out, I didn’t get either of the jobs I thought I was a shoe-in, because I was “overqualified.” I was too good. It’s nice to hear people think you’re good at what you do, but when you need a paycheck it’s less than cold comfort. It’s insult, and injury on top.
I bring all this up because, as I watch this year’s Tour, I see Chris Froome going through the same thing. Asked to be Bradley Wiggins’ chief lieutenant on the road, Froome has shown himself to be, on some days, even better than his boss.
First he was asked to sit up on Stage 11 when off the front with Wiggins grinding along behind. Then again today, as the Sky pair sought to overhaul a solo breakaway by Alejandro Valverde up a steep Pyrenean slope, Froome gapped his leader and had to wait.
The press have tried desperately to stir conflict within the Sky team by suggesting that Froome is resentful of having to maintain loyalty to Wiggins, while the rider’s own responses have been well measured. Clearly, Froome is doing his job, all the while reminding his bosses and everyone else that he might just be the strongest rider in France at the moment.
Without hauling out the baggage of the Hinault/LeMond intrasquad rivalry that is the template for just this situation, it should be said that pro cycling has little if any room for mutiny. Until a team leader shows himself unable to lead, as Cadel Evans has over the last few days, then a team’s total loyalty must always remain with him. The margin between victory and defeat is too fine to make any real space for freelance ambition.
So that leaves Chris Froome, quite possibly the strongest rider in the race, headed for the second step of the podium. His loyalty is admirable, but he must feel crushed not to be able to fulfill every rider’s ultimate dream, to wear yellow on the Champs Élysées.
Oh, he’ll be roundly praised, and Wiggins will pay lip service to the effort of the team. He has already made a Hinault-esque promise to help Froome win a future Tour, but it’s a bit early for the side-burned Sky captain to start playing kingmaker. Next year’s Tour promises to feature one Alberto Contador, not to mention a possibly resurgent Andy Schleck and a more-experienced Vincenzo Nibali.
On the face of it, Wiggins’ promise is generous. Beneath the surface, it is more or less worthless, almost an insult.
Chris Froome is lucky. He has a job, a good one, and a steady paycheck. He’ll be a hot property for next season as genuine grand tour GC contenders are perhaps the rarest talents in the pro peloton. Unfortunately, he’s overqualified for the job he’s got now.
His reward will be finding a new job and hoping against hope that he can arrive in France, at some point in the future, with the form it takes to win cycling’s top prize, a prize he is currently watching slip between his fingers.
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
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With Team Sky’s dominance of the Tour de France through the first 12 stages, the question seems not to be can Bradley Wiggins win the general classification, but rather, what other honors can this team cram into its collective palmares. Chris Froome currently sits second overall, and Mark Cavendish, relatively quiet in the points competition, no doubt with an eye on the Olympics, remains in reserve to hunt stage wins later in the race when the road flattens out again. If you think of Wiggins’ TT win, Froome’s stage 7 win, Cavendish’s Stage 3 win, plus holding the top two GC positions, any further demonstration of power would just be cruel to the other racers.
But you know, it’s a cruel sport.
Wiggins must be the favorite to win the remaining ITT and, in fact, the overall, though if someone has a clear picture of how either Cadel Evans or Vincenzo Nibali can claw back time against the side-burned Briton, I’d love to hear the scenario. The truth is, as strong as the current maillot jaune has been when necessary, it is the class of Froome, Michael Rogers and even Richie Porte that have proven the difference.
Anytime a rival dares attack, Sky has responded calmly, almost casually, with superior talent. Even when Tejay van Garderen escaped up the road to slingshot Evans, who himself made a brilliant move to get away from Wiggins’ group, Sky snuffed the move easily.
So the question, our question, remains: What else can Sky take? Can Froome stand on the second step of the podium in Paris? How will he play the loyal lieutenant and vanquish Sky’s GC rivals at the same time?
Can Cavendish win another stage? Two more? Will Richie Porte or Michael Rogers be given opportunities to nab wins for themselves? If Sky are vulnerable in any way, what is it? If they are not, what is the limit of their potential success here?
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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.
If the Tour de France were raced on ergometers then Brad Wiggins would already have done enough to be declared the winner. His stage victory on Monday in the Besançon time trial over his own Sky teammate Chris Froome, with defending champion Cadel Evans 1:43 adrift, was so dominant that a power expert would tell you it’s mathematically impossible for Wiggins to lose this Tour. If he repeats the pace he rode on Monday at the second long time trial awaiting them on the final weekend, he could gain another two minutes on Evans, which means the BMC racing leader has to gain some four minutes on the remaining mountain stages, not just two minutes as has been written. And given the fact that Evans gained no time on Wiggins in the two climbing stage so far, his current handicap is impossible to overcome. On paper, at least.
Thankfully, much of the Tour is raced on French back roads over terrain that can throw out unexpected obstacles, and in weather that can suddenly change from benign to belligerent. When Spanish rider Luis Ocaña jumped to a GC lead of 9:46 in the Alps over the great Eddy Merckx midway through the 1971 Tour, nearly everyone said the race was over. But Merckx fought like crazy, took back almost two minutes on a marathon 250-kilometer-long breakaway with his teammates on a flat stage to Marseille, and then beat Ocaña by 11 seconds in a subsequent time trial at Albi.
Merckx went into the Pyrénées still 7:23 behind his Spanish rival and knew he had to attack on every mountain stage if he were to catch Ocaña. On the first of those stages, the Cannibal descended the steep and winding Col de Menté like a hand-guided missile in a dramatic thunderstorm on road awash with gravel. Ocaña slid out on a switchback and as he stood up, another rider banged into him and sent him flying. Ocaña was airlifted to the hospital, and Merckx cruised the remaining week to his third consecutive yellow-jersey victory.
With a week to go in the 1987 Tour, strong French time trialist Jean-François Bernard won the uphill TT to the summit of Mont Ventoux and took a 2:34 overall lead over runner-up Stephen Roche (that gap compares with the 1:53 that Wiggins holds over Evans today). People, particularly the French, said the Tour was over and Bernard would win. But the next day, teams with leaders immediately behind Bernard on GC used brilliant tactics to make a joint attack on a semi-mountain stage. Bernard and his teammates chased for a couple of hours, holding a one-minute gap before cracking under the pressure. Bernard lost 4:18 that day and never wore yellow again.
I’m not saying Wiggins and his Team Sky henchman will crack or crash and that Evans will win this Tour, because things may well go another way. We all remember 1992. Even Wiggins. The Brit was then age 12, already bike crazy, and watching the Tour on TV. Talking after Monday’s time-trial win, the first Tour stage victory of his career, Wiggins said, “I remember seeing Induráin do this in Luxembourg in 1992. And I just did something like that.”
Yes, on stage 9 of the 1992 Tour (Wiggins’s win on Monday was also on stage 9), in a 65-kilometer circuit time trial at Luxembourg, Miguel Induráin beat his nearest rivals by more than three minutes. And though he was challenged in a monster break through the Alps by Claudio Chiappucci, the Spaniard cruised in the Pyrénées to finish in Paris 4:35 ahead of Chiappucci. Maybe Wiggins will do something similar. But it’s far from guaranteed.
In a response to a question about defending the yellow jersey through to Paris, Wiggins said Monday, “I’m only human, not a monster, and I might have a bad day … and Cadel is not going to give up.” Merckx didn’t give up in 1971. Roche didn’t give up in ’87. And Evans won’t give up in ’12.
For more of John’s work covering the Tour, drop by pelotonmagazine.com.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
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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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I have been too hard on Andy Schleck. And though I’m sure he’s not losing much sleep over it, I’d like to take this opportunity to give him his due, because as many have pointed out to me, he IS a supremely talented rider.
He took the Young Rider classification at the 2007 Giro, and the same honor at the 2008 and 2009 Tours, before (on paper anyway) winning the 2010 Grand Boucle and finishing second last year. Between the ages of 22 and 25 he established himself as the best young GC rider in the world, without question. Turning those white jerseys yellow has been a bigger challenge, but that shouldn’t diminish what he achieved in the first phase of his career.
Looking ahead to the 2012 Tour, which rolls out of Liege tomorrow with a 6.4km prologue, it will be interesting to see who will pull on the white jersey and become the next Andy Schleck.
To me, the most intriguing possibility is Peter Sagan. The Slovakian sensation is having an incredible season, winning at will in week-long stage races like the Tour of California and Tour de Suisse. He can win in a traditional sprint. He can win in an uphill sprint. His main goal will be the green points jersey, but, because he can time trial and doesn’t slide backwards on the climbs quite like the rest of the sprinting cohort, there is the very real possibility that he can challenge for both jerseys. The odds are long, but thrilling to consider.
More traditionally, the white jersey goes to an accomplished climber though, so riders like Rein Taaramäe, Tejay van Garderen and Pierre Rolland must be favorites.
Taaramäe rides for Cofidis, a team with no realistic GC pretensions, so the young Estonian will be hunting steep stage wins. He has a string of good results behind him, and like Sagan his time-trialing is superior to most of the other white jersey hopefuls.
Van Garderen is another adept climber with good GC results. His challenge will be the weight of duty to returning champion Cadel Evans. In some cases, being first lieutenant in the mountains serves a young rider well. In others, it can completely derail a challenge.
A perfect example of a successful climbing domestique is Pierre Rolland who rode with Thomas Voekler during his fairytale stretch in the yellow jersey last year. Rolland rode away with the white jersey as a reward for his loyalty.
There are other possibilities, such as Vacansoleil-DCM’s Wout Poels or Rabobank’s Steven Kruijswijk. This week’s Group Ride, as if it wasn’t entirely obvious already, wonders: Who’s next? What are Sagan’s possibilities? Of the rest, who is most likely, and how will team chemistry and duty, play out against the back drop of the white jersey.
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
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I just had breakfast with Scott Moninger at a Boulder diner. The 45-year-old Colorado resident is probably the greatest American bike racer who never rode the Tour de France—but he is going to his first Tour this week. Not as a racer, but as a television commentator to work with Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll in the NBC Sports “studio” at every stage finish for the next three weeks And judging by our conversation over eggs and French toast on Monday, Moninger will make a great addition to the team.
In a pro career that lasted almost two decades, Moninger raced for teams such as Coors Light, Mercury, HealthNet and BMC Racing. He won 275 races. Not bad for a climber! His palmarès lists some 30 overall wins in stage races, including Australia’s Herald-Sun Tour, the Redlands Classic and Tour of Utah, along with multiple victories in the Mount Evans Hill Climb and Nevada City Classic. In other words, Moninger knows quite a bit about bike racing!
Since ending his pro racing career in 2007, Moninger has remained in the sport, first as a team director with Toyota-United, and presently as a coach with Peaks Coaching, and as a national brand ambassador for Speedplay pedals. But it’s his knowledge as a bike racer, along with his calm, confident voice and solid demeanor, that should make him a perfect foil for Roll’s wacky style. “And they wanted an American,” Moninger emphasized, referring to NBC Sports.
Moninger’s presence will add an extra degree of knowledge to Tour coverage on network television. He may not have ridden the Tour, but he raced with or against many of the men who competed in Liège-Bastogne-Liège earlier this spring, including Tom Danielson, Cadel Evans, JJ Haedo, Greg Henderson, Ryder Hesjedal, George Hincapie, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer and Dave Zabriskie. That personal connection will help give viewers an inside perspective on the peloton, while Moninger’s up-to-the-minute knowledge of training and tactics will add considerable depth to the NBC team’s daily analysis of the Tour.
Moninger doesn’t have the experience of his three veteran co-commentators (Liggett will be calling the race for the 40th time this year!), “but they wanted someone with a fresh voice,” Moninger told me. He may not be a seasoned TV “talent” but I’m sure he’ll be that fresh voice NBC Sports producer David Michaels is seeking.
I don’t want to give away any secrets, but Moninger, who said he has diligently watched the Tour on TV for the past 20 years, shared many fine insights on the Tour over breakfast. We talked about all the contenders, their teams, the likely strategies, the unusual layout of this year’s Tour, and the Olympic road race that follows a week after the Tour.
Moninger can also talk knowledgably about any doping topics that surface because, as most people remember, he was a victim of the anti-doping rules a decade ago. He tested positive for the prohibited steroid 19-norandrosterone at Colorado’s Saturn Cycling Classic in August 2002, and he was given a two-year suspension, which, on appeal to a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency tribunal, was reduced to one year.
Moninger explained at his hearing that a month before the Colorado race, when he couldn’t buy the amino-acid supplement he’d been using for years, he switched to another brand—and though no prohibited substances were listed in the ingredients, an analysis later showed there were some unknown anabolic elements in the supplement.
The appeals panel didn’t accept that explanation, but they did cut Moninger’s sentence because of a provision in the anti-doping rules that allows a panel to modify a suspension because of the “character, age and experience of the transgressor.” They also recognized that this was his first positive result in more than 100 drug tests he’d undertaken in his then 12 seasons as a professional cyclist. In its verdict, the USADA panel wrote that “the evidence clearly indicates that he is one of the most respected and trusted members of the American cycling community.”
That experience wasn’t something he wanted, but it certainly gives Moninger an insider’s knowledge of the anti-doping process, and that knowledge could be of great value over the course of a Tour. Although no one wants another doping scandal to scar the sport, Moninger will be able to expertly discuss subjects like Alberto Contador’s current suspension and USADA’s ongoing investigation of the alleged “doping conspiracy” in teams led by Lance Armstrong that is keeping Johan Bruyneel from directing his RadioShack-Nissan team at the Tour.
Moninger, and the rest of the NBC viewers, would much rather discuss the promise of a new Tour, where Evans and Brad Wiggins may be the favorites but, as we discussed at breakfast, there will be some great challenges from the likes of Hesjedal, Horner, Leipheimer and half-a-dozen others. So it should be a good first Tour for a popular American seeking to be the new voice of cycling.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
For most of the past century, the Olympic Games weren’t a big deal in the cycling world. Only amateur bike racers could compete and they regarded the Games as a small stepping-stone toward the professional ranks. That began to change at Atlanta in 1996. Pro racers took part for the first time and their superior level of fitness was demonstrated by four Frenchmen, who’d just finished the Tour de France, getting together to win the track team pursuit. And the pros, led by Swiss champ Pascal Richard, swept all the medals in the men’s road race.
Since then, the prestige of winning Olympic gold medals in cycling was raised progressively by high-profile road race winners Jan Ullrich (Sydney 2000), Paolo Bettini (Athens 2004) and Samuel Sanchez (Beijing 2008). Our sport’s high profile has become personified by two multi-Olympic champions, British sprinter Sir Chris Hoy and French mountain biker Julien Absalon, who are household names in their respective countries.
Even the road time trial, started in 1996, has grown in stature thanks to its defending champion Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss superstar has again targeted the Olympic TT as a major goal, the same as Germany’s world TT champion Tony Martin. And their likely challengers include multi-time world pursuit champs Brad Wiggins and Taylor Phinney, now that their favored track discipline has been eliminated from the Olympic program.
A mark of the status held by cycling with the International Olympic Committee is the fact that the whole Games’ event schedule, for the third time, is being kicked off with the elite men’s road race. After the Athens circuit around the Parthenon, and the Beijing course to the Great Wall of China, London will see a start-finish outside the Queen’s Buckingham Palace with a route south to the Surrey Hills and nine laps of a scenic loop over and around Box Hill.
The race will not only showcase many of London’s most historic and beautiful sites, but also feature the very best classics riders in pro cycling. So, even though many of them are building up to what promises to be a fascinating Tour de France, they are looking beyond racing for yellow jerseys in Paris to shooting for gold in London. And the media hype has stepped up considerably since national federations announced their long teams for all the Olympic cycling events last week.
The focus to date has been on Britain’s home team of medal contenders, headed by world champ Mark Cavendish for the road race and Wiggins for the time trial. The two Team Sky leaders, like their team manager Dave Brailsford, believe that the road to Olympic gold is via the Tour—as do potential medal contenders such as Australia’s Matt Goss, Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert, Germany’s André Greipel, Norway’s Eddy Boasson Hagen, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, Spain’s Sanchez, Switzerland’s Cancellara and Tyler Farrar of the United States. Those not risking the Tour’s potential perils to focus totally on July 28’s Olympic road race include sprinters Tom Boonen of Belgium, Daniele Bennati of Italy and Thor Hushovd of Norway.
Selecting teams for London has been tricky because the strongest nations can field only five riders, as opposed to eight for regular one-day classics; and one of each country’s selection also has to start the time trial four days’ later. Ideally, a team will have a leader who can sprint well at the end of the tough 250-kilometer road race, along with support riders who can chase down breaks that will inevitably form on the many narrow, twisty back roads that precede and follow the nine laps of the hilly 15.5-kilometer circuit at the heart of the London course.
For the United States, much has been made of the fact that veterans George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie separately contacted USA Cycling this summer, saying they did not want to be considered for the Olympic road team. But with Farrar already the designated leader since he became the first American sprinter to win a Tour stage last year, and with all four of the veterans being stage-race specialists, there was no compelling reason to select them. For instance, Hincapie hasn’t raced the worlds for the past four years (and he was only 39th in the Beijing Olympics), Leipheimer hasn’t started a worlds road race for eight years, and Vande Velde and Zabriskie last rode the worlds in 2010 (placing 79th and DNF respectively).
It has been speculated that the four riders recused themselves because they may be witnesses in the USADA-alleged doping conspiracy at the U.S. Postal Service team during Lance Armstrong’s Tour-winning years. But neither Leipheimer nor Zabriskie raced for Postal at those Tours. And though Leipheimer did race with Armstrong at the 2009 and 2010 Tours (on the Astana and RadioShack teams), which USADA alleges were also “suspicious” years, among his teammates was Chris Horner, who has been selected for the London Olympics.
In any case, Horner’s credentials for the 2012 Olympic team are far stronger than those of the four other veterans. Horner is one of the few Americans to have placed top 10 at one-day races as diverse as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Lombardy and the worlds’ road race, and he will be an invaluable aid to Farrar and the three younger members of the London Olympics squad: Tim Duggan, Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen.
As for these three, Duggan has proven himself this year as a powerful domestique for the Liquigas-Cannondale team (and he also happened to win the recent U.S. national road title!); Phinney was an excellent 17th in his first Paris-Roubaix in April (Hincapie finished 43rd); and Van Garderen will be helping his BMC Racing team leader Cadel Evans defend his Tour title next month, and he has finished the toughest Ardennes classics in each of the past two years.
Van Garderen can also be a strong back-up rider for the time trial should Phinney get injured or sick, while Phinney’s winning time trial at last month’s Giro d’Italia (besides his past world track titles) made him as good if not better candidate for the Olympic TT than the veteran Zabriskie. So the U.S. national team for London is solid in every respect, whatever may be speculated in the media. It will be fascinating to see how they perform at London in what has become one of cycling’s most sought-after prizes.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Following Team Sky’s collective domination of the climbing stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné this past weekend, comparisons are being made with great teams of the past: the Molteni armada of Eddy Merckx, the La Vie Claire crew of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, and the infamous Train Bleu of Lance Armstrong. It’s said that comparisons are odious, but few would deny that the performance of Brad Wiggins and his Sky teammates last Saturday on the mighty Col de Joux-Plane, this Dauphiné’s one truly challenging climb, was nothing less than extraordinary.
The result was that the eight-day Dauphiné ended in a repeat overall victory for Wiggins, with his teammates Mick Rogers (second), Chris Froome (fourth) and Richie Porte (ninth) also finishing top 10. It appears to be a similar result to the 1986 Tour de France, when LeMond was first, Hinault second and their La Vie Claire teammates Andy Hampsten (fourth) and Niki Rüttimann (seventh) also placed top 10. But that result was achieved in a very different manner: Hampsten, Rüttimann and Steve Bauer were LeMond’s only true helpers at that Tour, while Hinault raced an almost separate race, riding against LeMond and supported by the team’s other four (mostly French) domestiques.
As for Merckx and Armstrong, they controlled their teams to act in concert, using their strongest teammates to prepare the ground before making their own moves. In Merckx’s case, those moves sometimes included extraordinary, long solo breakaways, while Armstrong rarely changed his winning formula of making late bursts on mountaintop finishes. The one thing that Armstrong, Merckx, LeMond and Hinault all have in common with Wiggins today is their superiority in time trials. And time trials will play a big role in the upcoming Tour.
However, what Wiggo and his Merry Men did in last week’s Dauphiné was somewhat unusual. They achieved their overall dominance with what amounted to daily team time trials—even up the Joux-Plane! Their having four mean leading an eventual nine-man group to the French mountain’s 5,577-foot summit may have looked like the 2004 Tour hegemony of Armstrong U.S. Postal squad, which had seven men pulling a 22-man peloton up the Col d’Agnes in the Pyrenees; but those Postal riders separately made their strong pulls before dropping back to leave Armstrong alone to battle for victory with Ivan Basso on that stage’s final climb to Plateau de Beille.
The one similar tactic for Sky on the Joux-Plane came from the British team’s Norwegian phenom, Eddy Boasson Hagen, who softened the opposition by setting a fierce tempo in the opening half of the renowned alpine climb, which at almost 12 kilometers long and an average grade approaching 9 percent, is even tougher than L’Alpe d’Huez. The relay was taken up by Sky’s rising Australian star, Porte, who, incredibly, pulled the diminished group for the rest of the 35-minute ascent. All Wiggins had to do was follow with Froome and Rogers.
Other than the non-threatening Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who was “allowed” to sneak ahead (and win the stage), the only riders still with the Sky foursome at the Joux-Plane summit were two team leaders, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, and three lieutenants, Vasil Kiryienka of Movistar, Pieter Weening of Orica-GreenEdge and Haimar Zubeldia of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
Evans, who is still building his form for the Tour, admitted that the climbing pace set by Boasson Hagen and Porte on the Joux-Plane was too constantly strong for him to contemplate making an uphill attack, especially in gusting winds. Evans did use his renowned bike-handling skills to make a downhill attack … but the Aussie seemed to forget that the true descent of the Joux-Plane doesn’t start until a second summit (actually called the Col de Ranfolly), and he wasted energy in a fruitless attack on the two, mainly flat kilometers between the two peaks. So he didn’t finally break through Sky’s impregnable wall until halfway down the 9km descent to the finish in Morzine. If he hadn’t made that initial move Evans, who had placed second four times in four starts at the Dauphiné, would likely have netted enough time to move above Rogers into second overall. Instead, he ended up in third.
But the Dauphiné is not the Tour, and Evans and his BMC team will be at a much higher level in July. As for Wiggins, who’s mimicking Merckx (and Elvis!) with his quirky sideburns, the Brit and his Merry Men know that some of them will also be working hard for teammate Mark Cavendish at the Tour. But with the world champ, on a sugarless diet, on course for losing 10 pounds of body fat before the 2012 Tour de France starts in Liège on June 30, maybe the sprinter will be light enough to work for Wiggo in the climbing stages after he picks up a batch of stage wins in the first half of the Tour!
Another difference between the Dauphiné and the Tour is that most of the likely Tour contenders were either not at their best in the Dauphiné or racing this week’s Tour of Switzerland. Of course, Saturday’s climb of the Joux-Plane was a disaster for potential contenders Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale (nine minutes lost), Denis Menchov of Katusha and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi (both 13 minutes back) … and RadioShack’s Andy Schleck, who didn’t even get that far, abandoning the Dauphiné on the stage’s first climb because of the injuries sustained in his time-trial crash last Thursday.
There have so far been mixed results in Switzerland for RadioShack’s other Tour contender, Fränk Schleck, Movistar’ leader Alejandro Valverde and two other likely Tour contenders, Levi Leipheimer of Omega-Quick Step and Robert Gesink of Rabobank. But by the end of the Swiss race—finishing with a full mountain stage next Sunday — all of those riders look likely to be on the same upward path as Evans.
If the Tour de France were starting right now instead of June 30, everyone would be predicting a race dominated by Team Sky and an overall victory for Wiggins. But as the Tour has seen countless times, crashes and sickness often ruin the hopes of favorites, as happened last year with Wiggins, Leipheimer and Gesink. And the true contenders rarely come to the top until the third and final week, as could be the case this year, with Evans, the Schlecks, and perhaps Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda, challenging Wiggo and his Merry Men.
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Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti