The final Grand Tour of the season is upon us and that can mean only one thing: You’ve planned your Labor Day Weekend. Wait, no, that’s not it. Your kids are back in school. Hmm, maybe, but still not quite right.
Oh, right, your TV is about to get monopolized.
Frank Schleck says he can win the Vuelta, but to do so, he’s going to have to go chainring-to-chainring with all of Spain, including Giro second place David Arroyo and Joaquin Rodgriguez. We’ve got Carlos Sastre, Oscar Pereiro and Carlos Barredo. Garmin-Transitions has brought Christian Vande Velde, though their actual GC guy is Tom Danielson. After Schleck, Arroyo and Rodriguez, how many of those guys really look like anything other than dark horses?
Given the current, tarnished finish on Grand Tour podiums, the real question at stake may be how long it will be before this year’s Vuelta podium is ensnared in a doping scandal. For where the Tour goes in doping scandals, the Vuelta seems to lead by a year or two. When we ask, “Who will win the Vuelta?” we mean now … and after the dust settles.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
So Alberto Contador won the Tour de France by a margin slimmer than many said was possible, a margin equal to what he clawed out with the aid of Dennis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez on stage 15. We can argue about all the places each rider gained or lost time, but really, the race comes down to two fateful events: Schleck’s mis-shift on 15 and his later 39-second gap in the final time trial. The symmetry of the two events is more difficult to ignore than the economy.
And just to be ultra-clear about this, yes, I’m saying that without help from both Menchov and Sanchez, Contador wouldn’t have won the Tour.
I should also point out that even though he twice went for stage wins for himself, Alexander Vinokourov proved to be both valuable and loyal to Contador in the mountain stages. Vinokourov sat on Schleck on stage 15 and never rode for himself by taking a pull at the front of the group. He’ll always be an unpredictable element in my mind, but he demonstrated his value to the Astana team repeatedly. He deserves to be recognized.
But individual performances aside, if we back up and look at the 2010 Tour de France as an elaborate chess game involving 22 players, some interesting questions emerge.
First, what the hell has Johan Bruyneel been thinking? He fielded the most experienced team in the Tour de France, sure, but it was also the oldest team by an Egyptian pharaoh. The most youthful element of the team was the management company’s formation documents. Even if we accept the possibility that the fight went out of Armstrong following his daily crashes so that by the time the time trial came around, he really wasn’t trying—which is why we didn’t see the form necessary to win the race overall anywhere in the same time zone as him—we should still ask the question: Why did no one else other than Chris Horner ride like his career was at stake?
Speaking of recognition, let’s hope that Horner feels some satisfaction and vindication at his stellar ride. It’s one of the best performances by a rider over the age of 35 ever at the Tour, and is his single best performance there. It was his misfortune to sign for a French team when he first went to Europe and his worse fortune to have his career coincide with Armstrong’s. Had he hit Europe five years earlier than he did, he could have led Motorola in its quest to do something significant in a Grand Tour. Or not. There have long been reports that Jim Ochowicz (director of Motorola and now one of the powers that be at BMC) had issues with the formerly feisty San Diegan.
Back to Bruyneel. His reputation as a kingmaker able to deliver a worthy rider to a Grand Tour victory has suffered its first setback. Even with the triple-barrel shotgun of Armstrong, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer he was unable to deliver any one of them to the top 10. Horner’s performance was the sort of showing that the French teams generally hope to luck into but can plan no better than a chimp considering retirement.
With that much talent and so little to show for it, the brass at The Shack might be understandably perturbed.
This time last year many of us were beginning to rethink what might be possible age-wise in a Grand Tour. Now, the near complete waterlogging of Radio Shack has most cycling fans thinking that, yes, age really does slow you down. Too much to deliver a win on the world’s biggest stage.
And cast in the light of failure, Armstrong seems less ambitious, less hungry, less focused on highlighting the cause of cancer than just gluttonous, a corpulent ego.
But that’s how we play it isn’t it? When our heroes fall, we pounce.
But even if the Radio Shack board is less than thrilled, imagine what’s going on in the boardroom at Sky. Isn’t the question there whose head rolls first?
Seemingly a world away, Bjarne Riis has proven that he knows how to bring the race to anyone he wants. He’s delivered Tyler Hamilton, Carlos Sastre, Ivan Basso and Andy Schleck all to podium finishes at Grand Tours, though his record of wins (just two) is rather slim despite the obvious strength of his team.
Yvon Sanquer, a name you may not be very familiar with even after his team’s success, is the director of Team Astana and has kept a profile nearly as high as that of newly mown grass. His previous best result as a team director was after being brought in to rescue Team Festina (not unlike what he was asked to do with Astana) and his riders (mostly Marcel Wüst) were able to take a stage of the Tour de France along with four stages of the Vuelta plus some stages at lesser stage races. Before 2010, his riders’ closest association to the winner of a Grand Tour was if they had chatted with him.
And yet, somehow Sanquer brought together what seemed to be an underpowered team and saw to it that Contador was rarely without help in the mountains.
Despite the Astana team performing as if it were still run by Johan Bruyneel—admit it, it was an impressive performance that very few thought could truly deliver the goods as a cohesive unit this past January—I am surprised by the number of people I hear from who just plain don’t like Alberto Contador. To the degree that maybe many cycling fans were less than enthusiastic about him, it seems that even if his counter attack on stage 15 didn’t rile people, the fact that he lied about not knowing what was going on with Andy Schleck seems to have sent some fans around the bend. I’ve not been a fan of some of his tactics, and have thought some of his interviews with the Spanish media were whiny and meant to play the pity card, which strikes me as unseemly—like the Super Bowl winning team sniffling about playing hurt, but it struck me as insulting to fans everywhere for him to claim he couldn’t tell there was anything wrong with Schleck.
Which brings me to Jonathan Vaughters. Of the teams bidding for Contador’s services last year, Vaughters’ Garmin-Transitions formation was one of the teams in the running to sign the diminutive Spaniard. There are reports that after all of his efforts to leave Astana he is now considering a new contract and staying.
Contador would do well to leave, so long as he left for Vaughters. Of the many team directors at the Tour de France, Vaughters is the one that seems to have an uncanny ability to help riders achieve greatness in the GC that he never could reach on his own. In three years of competing in the Tour de France Vaughters has delivered three different riders to top-10 finishes, first with Christian Vande Velde’s fourth place, then Bradley Wiggins fourth and now Ryder Hesjedal’s seventh place. In each case the riders were uniformly believed to be talented, but no one—other than Vaughters—considered them real GC vehicles on which to pin a team’s hopes.
Sanquer’s success with Contador suggests competence, nothing more. After all, if you can’t guide a previous Tour de France winning to yet another victory, what kind of team director are you?
Bjarne Riis has consistently put together one of the strongest, most cohesive teams on the planet. That he hasn’t won more may be a question of formula more than anything else. The question seems to be, ‘Why didn’t he win?’ rather than, ‘What’s it going to take to secure another win?’
Bruyneel is the great curiosity this year. He’s ripe for criticism. How should he deflect the charge that he went with Armstrong less for career than paycheck? If he didn’t go to Radio Shack for the paycheck, then why? It’s hard for Bruyneel to charge that Vinokourov is a more tarnished rider than some he has worked with. Contador clearly has a greater future than Armstrong does. Maybe the question is just how loyal a guy is Bruyneel. Some folks are loyal to a fault. Could it be so with him?
Even if he didn’t go to Radio Shack just for a bigger paycheck that is virtually guaranteed not to dry up mid-way through the season, where does he rank his ambitions as a director? Twelve of the team’s 26 riders have had their 30th birthday. Six of them are older than 32. The only rider on the team who is showing talent and is early in his career is Janez Brajkovič. Taylor Phinney doesn’t count because he’s only a staigiaire.
How else do you wind up with that many riders in need of a retirement party than by selecting a crew that can be depended on being utterly devoted to Armstrong? Now, there’s nothing wrong with being committed to supporting your team leader, but it is fair to ask how smart it is to construct a team for a single year’s performance. Even if Leipheimer, Klöden, Horner and Rubiera plan to ride Grand Tours next year, how capable will any of them be? Horner is the only guy I’d bet on as a good support rider for the simple reason that he is obviously still proving his value and talent long after most guys have quit.
You want to make the 2011 Tour de France really interesting? Get Vaughters to sign Horner.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
On July 1, 2010, the 2010 Tour de France looked as if it would be one of the most competitive editions of the race in its history. Rarely has a Grand Tour had so much talent show up with winning in mind. It was as if the six best teams in the NFL took the field for the Superbowl.
This was a Tour whose closest parallel was perhaps the 1989 edition, where three former winners—Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Greg LeMond—took the start and were ultimately the race’s greatest protagonists. This year’s race also had three former winners toe the start line—Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. Nearly as important is the fact it also had an amazing six former podium finishers—Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Alexander Vinokourov—at the start, plus Denis Menchov, a three-time Grand Tour winner in his own right. It was to be The Great Showdown.
The point of a Grand Tour, of course, is to see who cracks, which riders fail under pressure, but even more importantly, which riders rise to the occasion and surprise themselves, their teams and the fans. With a field gushing talent and experience like an out-of-control well in the Gulf of Mexico, no one really thought there would be room for any insurgent talents, but the prospect that one of the former top-10s, such as Frank Schleck, Michael Rogers or Bradley Wiggins capturing a podium spot seemed less science fiction than the impossibility of sealing off that aforementioned well.
But here we are, nine stages into The Great Showdown and what do we have? A race of two. That is, the race will come down to Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck provided there are no race-ending crashes or other stunning tragedies that befall either rider. That said, the way this race is going, I am willing to accept the possibility that someone other than either of these two riders could win. This race has had that much bad luck.
Lance Armstrong’s good fortune seems at an end. I’ll say more on that in another post. Garmin-Transitions lost Christian Vande Velde in a crash and it’s odd to think he isn’t the only rider on that team nursing broken bones. Frank Schleck was rumored to be even stronger than brother Andy this year. And then there was Cadel Evans’ detonation. Even though this isn’t the first time he has choked under pressure, his eight-minute slide down the mountain and the standings must have caused a few jaws to hang open, mine among them.
Speaking of surprises, what of Team Astana? Last winter I wrote of the skeleton crew that had been hired just to give them enough riders to qualify for the ProTour. I was critical of the team and dinged the formation for not having the climbers necessary to defend Contador when he would most need it. Tonight’s meal will include a serving of my words.
What should we make of Alexander Vinokourov’s performance so far? The great fear was that he would go rogue and ride for himself and challenge Contador’s leadership. His performance, while good, has been erratic enough that I can’t say whether he has been riding for himself or not. There certainly have been times when his riding hasn’t seemed to be for the benefit of Contador, but then, in this race anything seems possible.
It is with the impossible in mind that arrive at Samuel Sanchez. Two podium finishes at the Vuelta are maybe on a par with a top-10 at the Tour de France, so almost no one seriously considered this guy to be a podium threat. Sure, he is the leader of Euskaltel-Euskadi, which is something like being a favorite if for no reason other than he is protected (in theory) by eight guys. But a real contender?
I’m beginning to think the battle for the last step of the podium is between Sanchez, Menchov, Gesink and Leipheimer. I think Van Den Broeck will crack, as will Basso, late in the Pyrenees. The fact that there is but one remaining time trial and it is at the end of the race will threaten a GC shuffle, and while we think the likely beneficiaries would be Contador, Menchov and Leipheimer, I refuse to bet. Anything seems possible right now.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Yesterday RKP celebrated its one-year anniversary. Your readership has made the last year possible. You’ve given us the chance to follow stories and explore perspectives that you won’t find at the other sites or magazines, which, for us, has meant getting to write content we wouldn’t have a chance to submit elsewhere.
In addition to the acceptance you’ve given the blog, the industry’s reception has been terrific as well. From the products we’ve been asked to review to the advertisers who need to be in front of you, we’ve been welcomed everywhere we go.
A brief note on my whereabouts for the last two weeks: I just finished a book on road cycling for new riders called Ride Like a Pro! Yesterday, I turned in the finished manuscript to my publisher, Menasha Ridge Press. I’ve no idea how many pages it will be, but I do know that we turned in 402 images. I’d say my relief is on the order of giving birth, but my wife would slap me; let’s just say this morning I took my first deep breath in months. Watch for it next spring.
And now, a year later, we’re at the start of the Tour de France yet again. Summer is ON. Has a more exciting Tour ever loomed? I don’t recall one. Traditionally, when the race has been called “wide open” the reason has been due to absences—missing former champions. However, this year is different.
The list of truly great riders capable of battling to victory is stunning for its depth. We have former champions Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, and all those who were counting Armstrong out in May are now curiously silent. Both Frank and Andy Schleck look capable of victory. And then there’s Cadel Evans. Evans may not have the strongest team at the Tour, but there is no question that he is the leader of a team and that he has full confidence from management.
Can Wiggins replicate his form from last year? The world is full of riders who rode to fourth once, sometimes twice, but never higher. Let’s watch and wait.
What of Sastre? No matter how likable and classy he is, he doesn’t seem to have shown the form necessary to be called a favorite.
It’s been almost 20 years since a rider took the Giro/Tour double and Miguel Indurain was in his prime. Can the same really be said of Basso?
We’re told this will be Lance Armstrong’s final Tour de France. We’ve every reason to take him at his word. Many will be relieved to see his departure. I, for one, won’t be. While I’m no fanboy, I am a fan. Lance has been a fascinating, surprising figure in cycling and his insights into cycling, given in interviews have been fun to digest. The reign of Armstrong has been no cleaner than the reign of Indurain, but the interviews have been far more enjoyable.
The day following a fun birthday can be something of a let down. With the whole of the Tour de France ahead of us, it’s going to be a party every day. Thanks for reading.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Well it’s been one of those weekends. First, a note on RKP. The site was infected with some malware that not only took the site down for hours that felt like days, but left behind numerous other files that took hours more to delete, even once the site was fully back online. How the attack occurred is still unknown; security was seemingly tip-top and all software was up to date. Guess it was bound to happen sometime. All I can say is that Mexican drug lords are too good a fate for the people who dream this stuff up. Thanks for your patience and notes of concern.
Meanwhile, the Tour of Italy was busy touring … the Netherlands. I get how the Tour de France starts outside of France every other year. Starting in Germany or Switzerland and riding into France lends the race an elegant international feel, and everyone—even non-cyclists—gets the sense of journey that comes with finishing a ride or race in a different nation. But starting three countries away? As a sense of story goes, it’s absurd. As race planning goes, it’s even worse, as evidenced by today’s rest day, which has been selected not for the racers’ recovery—which was the days’ original purpose—but rather for a transfer that risked being derailed a volcano. You can’t dream this stuff up.
In the prologue, there was a lot of love for David Millar and fellow Brit, Bradley Wiggins. The only surprise in the day’s results was the lack of surprise that came with Wiggo’s victory. It’s funny how our perception of the import of a great ride differs when the victor is someone vying for overall victory (which we chalk up as confirmation of form) versus a bit player such as Brent Bookwalter (where we hope he has just pulled one out of his hindquarters and not a more sinister indication that something is rotten in proverbial Denmark).
And in three days of racing we’ve had three different riders wear the maglia rosa. No surprise in that, but there’s a lot of surprise in seeing three of the race’s favorites—Wiggins, Cadel Evans and Alexander Vinokourov—trade the pink jersey like baseball cards.
That Wiggins, Evans and Vinokourov have all worn the leader’s jersey and not some sprinter interlopers is highly unusual. I can’t recall a Grand Tour that has unfolded this way in … ever. It speaks to just how aware this year’s favorites are that they must remain attentive and up front, just in case.
Seemingly, another character in this year’s Giro is the crashes. Amateur criteriums don’t feature this many crashes per day. Crashes have ended the hopes for Christian Vande Velde as well as Wiggins. And while Wiggins isn’t out of the race, his 4:26 deficit in a race with this much climbing means he’s unlikely to do more than take a stage win.
Of course, the majority of you who weighed in are looking for Carlos Sastre to take the overall victory. He’s a rider with a great deal of class and a willingness to attack. But will that be enough? True, his climbing talent makes him suited for this course, but we can’t forget that his Tour de France win came less due to his aggression than due to tactics that saw him ride away while Evans marked teammate Andy Schleck. If he can play riders against each other to his advantage once again, he could be formidable, just like that damn malware.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The withdrawal of Levi Leipheimer from the 2009 Tour de France due to a broken wrist is a sad twist for the race. It’s a loss on a number of levels, though it doesn’t change the race in the way some may think.
The first, biggest loss is that to Leipheimer himself. He was on stellar form and would possibly have had his second podium finish at the Tour. But this is yet another year where Leipheimer’s potential remains a question mark. Just what can he do as a leader?
The second is obviously to Astana. Only one other team in history has been able to use a guy sitting in the top five on GC to help control the race. When you think of legendary watchdogs, it is hard to find one more capable than Leipheimer.
Psychologically, Lance Armstrong has experienced a setback. Armstrong places a premium on riders’ whose loyalty is beyond question. That said, still has plenty of support in the form of Andreas Kloden and Yaroslav Popovych for when the race hits the high Alps and Mont Ventoux.
Unless Armstrong completely detonates on Mont Ventoux, the 2009 Tour de France will recalibrate our ideas about what a cyclist can achieve as he ages. Even if Contador wins the race, fewer people will think a guy who has had his 35th birthday is incapable of winning a Grand Tour. The question in Leipheimer’s case is will he ever be presented with an opportunity to arrive at the start of a Grand Tour properly trained and supported for unquestioned leadership.
The best thing that could happen for Leipheimer is to take his time healing up and then build back up for a run at the Vuelta a Espana. Of course, should Contador not win the Tour de France—and Armstrong doesn’t have to win, Contador just has to lose—he will likely want his own shot at the Vuelta which would resign Leipheimer yet again to the roll of World’s Finest Domestique.
But what does Leipheimer’s absence really do to the Tour? It means very little to the competition between Armstrong and Contador on a direct basis. Though it is true that Andy Hampsten was forced to chase Bernard Hinault on one occasion in the Alps at the ’86 Tour, it is almost impossible to conceive of a situation in which Leipheimer would have been asked (and Bruyneel would have allowed) to chase down his own teammate. In short, Leipheimer’s greatest threat to Contador was psychological; knowing Leipheimer was loyal to Amstrong may have made him something of a deterrent to Contador.
Leipheimer’s greatest use was always in controlling the attacks of other teams. As a result, his absence will make it harder for Astana to neutralize other teams late in a stage. While that fact may strike many of you as obvious to the point of stupidity, the upshot is truly interesting.
Late-stage attacks from the likes of Carlos Sastre, Andy Schleck or Christian Vande Velde (it seems a little unlikely that Bradley Wiggins or Tony Martin will mount a stunning attack) will give both Armstrong and Contador an opportunity to follow and counterattack. A less neutralized competition should actually increase the fireworks between Astana’s two leaders.
And what of Leipheimer’s post-recovery future? It simply can’t be guessed. Had anyone suggested Leipheimer would return to Bruyneel’s fold to both achieve his best-ever form and be reduced to a support role at Grand Tours, most observant cycling fans would have scoffed. It’s a new take on irony, huh?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International