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
Well this is one time the FGR won’t be settled immediately. We’ve got nearly two weeks to see how this will shake out, but they are, after all, two weeks we’ve been waiting for since last August.
Interestingly, in your comments, There’s really only consensus on two classifications. With two exceptions each, everyone thinks that Thor Hushovd will take the green jersey, just as he did last year, and Andy Schleck will double up on the white jersey as well.
Alberto Contador was the only rider to come up with more than one vote for the yellow jersey, so it seems we must acknowledge that he remains the favorite. Interestingly, Andy Schleck was the only rider to get votes in three classifications: overall, mountains and best young rider. An inobservant reader might believe that to be an indication of his completeness as a rider, but it really doesn’t back us into a larger belief that he has the potential to wear yellow in Paris.
Eight stages in, a new question is worth asking: With Lance Armstrong’s GC hopes dashed, Christian Vande Velde out of the race, Bradley Wiggins unable to deliver as he did last year in the blue, white and orange of Garmin, if we assume that Contador, Evans and Schleck are the likely podium, who do you think will round out the top five or six?
Armstrong’s demise also spells out a very surprising development: Levi Leipheimer is finally the GC leader for a Johan Bruyneel-led team at the Tour de France. I don’t think anyone ever thought those three details would line up. It’s as if a one-armed bandit came up Bar-Bar-Bar for Santa Rosa’s favorite athlete. Go figure.
And as a corollary to my previous question, do you think Ryder Hesjedal can pull off what Wiggins did last year? Sky doesn’t seem to have figured out Wiggo the way Vaughters and White did. Rather an interesting development, given the way he badmouthed Garmin on his way out.
Among American cycling fans Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-Slipstream formation has enjoyed the loyal love afforded a hometown team. That love has been based more on the team being “American” than on having actually kicked a lot of ass.
Of course, it isn’t the only ProTour team registered in the U.S., as Bob Stapleton’s Columbia-HTC team is based in San Luis Obispo, California. However, despite an American owner and one of two title sponsors being American, most cycling fans still perceive the team as European for two simple reasons: Most of its sport directors came from the former T-Mobile team and it has almost no American riders.
Critics of the team have noted a dissonance between the amount of media attention Garmin garners wherever it goes, and its results. The undercurrent being—the team really hasn’t earned its status.
Many of the headlines the team has generated have come as a result of its outspoken anti-doping stance. On paper there are several teams with anti-doping programs as stringent as Garmin’s, but Jonathan Vaughters is the media’s go-to guy for quotes on how to run a clean cycling team. To be fair, no one else is as articulate on the challenges a pro cyclist faces or the mixed signals a rider might receive when trying to balance the need to produce results with the need to recover.
Until recently, most of the team’s wins have come in stages of smaller stage races and four national championships. A stage win and the leader’s pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia were all it claim for Grand Tour performances beyond a host of top-five finishes in stages and general classification.
But in less than a week two different riders, Tyler Farrar and Ryder Hesjedal, won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, giving the team its first Grand Tour stage wins. Back home, the team defended its title at the Tour of Missouri with David Zabriskie’s time trial win that culminated in overall victory. It was the first stage race victory for the talented time trialist.
Unless you’ve been sleeping through September, you know all that. Why bother to note this? There are a great many teams with little ability to win outside of their star rider. Garmin-Slipstream won stages in two different stage races—meaning two different squads—despite the fact that Christian Vande Velde had to withdraw from the Tour of Missouri.
It’s been easy to slag on Tom Danielson for his failed promise. A probably top-10 at the Vuelta doesn’t measure up to the promises that he would be America’s next Tour de France winner, after Lance Armstrong, of course. That said, until he was struck with a virus, he was lying fourth on the general classification. Even so, he stands to give his team its second top-10 finish in a Grand Tour this year. That may seem an achievement of dubious value but consider that Cofidis, AG2R La Mondiale, Euskaltel-Euskadi and Columbia-HTC won’t post two Grand Tour top-tens and Quick Step won’t even post one.
Tyler Farrar’s three stage wins at the Eneco Tour of Benelux are significant more for what they taught Farrar and his teammates and as a confidence-building exercise than for the wins themselves. Those wins were an imperative step toward winning his first Grand Tour stage.
For a team in only its first year of the ProTour, Garmin-Slipstream deserves recognition for the team’s rise to earned prominence. Still a darling of the media, the team has results to justify the interviews and TV time.
Photo: John Pierce, Photosport International
Perhaps no other stage in the 2009 Tour de France was as pivotal as Stage 17 to le Grand Bornand. It’s easy to argue who was right or wrong, depending on your view of the tactics employed, but there’s little doubt that it was a dramatic stage. John Pierce has compiled an impressive and illuminating set of images from the day. Here they are in chronological order.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
The ongoing talk and writing on the subject of Lance Armstrong vs. Alberto Contador has pretty well played itself out. The world is full of two alphas fighting for dominance. Whatever. The most interesting observations and most challenging disagreements have been made concerning the tension between Contador and his director, Johan Bruyneel. (Oh, and I apologize to all of you who thought of the 1980s sitcom starring Tony Danza.)
When is it okay for a rider to disobey his team director?
The question may seem academic, but our perception of what’s acceptable can determine our attitudes toward riders, their directors and even whole teams. Opinions have been so sharply divided on Armstrong and Contador, they might as well be charted as red or blue states. But the issue of Contador and Bruyneel isn’t necessarily as clear cut. Sure, plenty of Contador fans see Bruyneel as having been in league with Armstrong, but the fact is, Contador disobeyed his DS. It’s one thing to consider your teammate another competitor, but it’s another to think your DS can’t or won’t guide you to victory even if they know you’re the strongest rider in the race.
Tour de France chronicler Bill McGann, occasionally of these parts and more often of Bike Race Info asked me what I thought of Stephen Roche’s attack of Carrera teammate Roberto Visentini at the Giro d’Italia. Visentini was in the maglia rosa when Roche attacked.
The English-speaking press has traditionally portrayed Roche’s actions as justified, the acts of a guy who never was fully supported by his team. The fact is Roche attacked his teammate who was already in the lead.
My initial reply to McGann was that Roche’s attack was almost certainly wrong at the time but that history had vindicated his attack. Wait a second, though. At the time of Roche’s attack no rider from the Ireland or the U.K. had ever won a Grand Tour; statistically, his eventual victory was unlikely. McGann believes Visentini would like have won the Giro had Roche not attacked.
Cyclists may like Roche’s self-confidence, but that doesn’t change the fact that he attacked the Giro’s previous winner and current leader. It’s easy to come up with objective arguments in either Armstrong or Contador’s favor for why they should have been unquestioned leader of Astana, but there was virtually no reason to consider Roche for leadership.
Again, this may seem an academic argument, but the potential for this sort of conflict comes up all the time. It is increasingly common (likely, even) that a team will have two riders capable of a strong GC ride in a stage race. Some times it is easily resolved; consider Garmin’s example with Bradley Wiggins and Christian Vande Velde. Other times there is some tension, but the upstart asks for permission to ride for himself. Consider Silence-Lotto’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck who asked permission to ride for himself following following Cadel Evans’ implosion.
The ’09 Tour has been often compared to the ’86 duel between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault, but it is the psychic alter ego of the ’85 Tour when LeMond was the young upstart who by many—if not most—accounts was stronger than Hinault and could have beaten him. LeMond fans wring their hands about how he was screwed by his team, how Paul Koechli lied to him, how the promise of support in ’86 was penance for his incredible sacrifice in ’85.
But here’s the real question: If winning a race requires your utmost in fitness, strategy and even politics, when isn’t the winner deserving? Should winning come at any cost, even if it means virtual destruction of team cooperation?
Do, as Macchiavelli wrote, the ends really justify means and does that give a rider the right to overrule his director? In starker terms, does the fact that Roche won justify his attack.
Photo: 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