Back in July, Team Astana was clearly not only the strongest team in the 2009 Tour de France peloton, but also one of the most powerful teams that had been put together in recent years. La Gazzetta dello Sport called it “Fortress Astana”. This caused Padraig to ponder about which team might be the best Tour de France squad of all time. He suggested the 1986 La Vie Claire team of Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, Steve Bauer and Jean-François Bernard as the greatest.
I offered the 1908 Peugeot squad, which won all 14 stages in the 1908 Tour and took the top four GC places as the finest Tour de France team ever. I still hold by that view.
So who is number two on my list? Team France between 1930 and 1934.
Until 1930, the Tour as contested by trade teams, as it is today. Alcyon-Dunlop, Alleluia-Wolber and Lucifer-Hutchinson were the Cofidis’, Columbia-HTCs and Garmin-Transitions of their time. But, not surprisingly, loyalties could cross trade team lines and riders from a country could unite to help a fellow compatriot. Also, trade teams could combine to try to bring about an outcome that had been decided in a hotel room. Of course, this still goes on today.
At that time the Tour was run by its founder, an iron-fisted dictator named Henri Desgrange, who wanted his race to be a pure test of an athlete’s will and power. He made the race stupefyingly hard, even forcing the riders to perform their own repairs. As late as 1929 riders still had to fix their own flat tires. Desgrange loathed trade teams and felt they corrupted his race. Since the race’s inception he had tried to negate the effect of teams and domestiques (a term Desgrange invented) but in the end he had to surrender to the fact that massed-start bicycle road racing is a sport contested by teams and won by individuals.
It all came to a head in the 1929 Tour. Maurice Dewaele took the Yellow Jersey after the 323-kilometer stage 10 trip through the Pyrenees. His lead of nearly 15 minutes looked nearly unassailable. But as the Alps loomed, Dewaele fell ill. He was so sick that at one point he couldn’t eat solid food. He was pushed and dragged over the remaining stages by his teammates. More importantly, it seemed that a fix was in. Dewaele in his fragile state was extremely vulnerable to the attacks that never came. Astonishingly, he arrived in Paris still in yellow.
“A corpse has won,” lamented a miserable Desgrange who was convinced that something had to be done to protect the fundamental honesty of the Tour.
What he did was extraordinary. He dispensed with the detested trade teams and instead, put the riders in national squads. There was a French team, an Italian team, one for Belgium, etc. Since the bike makers had a 3-week publicity blackout, they refused to pay the substantial expenses of housing, feeding and transporting the riders. Again, Desgrange did the unexpected. He came up with the publicity caravan. Companies would pay the Tour for the privilege of driving their logo’d trucks and cars in front of the race. The national teams are gone, but the publicity caravan remains.
The effect of this realignment was huge. Instead of being scattered among many teams, the best French riders were now on one team. In 1930, the best stage racers in the world were the French, with the Belgians and Italians formidable but on a slightly lower level.
The early 1930s Team France has to be considered one of the greatest sports dynasties in history. They won 5 straight Tours with 3 different riders. That is a bench with depth. In 1930, the national team format’s first year, they not only won the Tour, they put 6 riders in the top ten in the overall, and team member Charles Pélissier won 8 stages.
Here’s the core of the team:
André Leducq: He won 5 stages in the 1929 Tour and went on to win a total of 25 stages. That remained the record until Merckx won 34. He won the Tour in 1930 and 1932. This was a man with talent. He had been world amateur champion and had won Paris-Roubaix in 1928 and would take Paris-Tours in 1931.
Antonin Magne: He won the tour in 1931 and 1934. Magne was the world pro road champion in 1936 and won the Grand Prix des Nations, then the unofficial world time trial championship, in 1934, ’35, an ’36.
Charles Pélissier: Charles was brother to 1923 Tour winner Henri and the capable but not outstanding Francis (who found later that he was a far better team manager than racer). Pélissier won those 8 stages in the 1930 Tour, which included the final 4 legs of the race. In 1931 he won 4 stages. Pélissier wasn’t part of the 1932 team (he would return in 1933) but Georges Speicher was. Speicher won the Tour and the world road championship in 1933 as well as the 1936 Paris-Roubaix. Also a member of the 1932 squad was Roger Lapébie. He won 5 stages in the 1934 Tour before going of to win the 1937 edition.
We can’t forget some of the other French team members:
Maurice Archambaud: magnificent against the clock but too heavy to win the Tour. He wore yellow but could never seal the deal, losing too much time in the high mountains. Nevertheless, he was an important contributor to the team’s success.
René Vietto: His story of giving up his wheel to allow Magne to win in 1934 when Vietto might very well have won the race himself is one of the legends of the Tour. This was a team that acted as one for a common goal. Vietto ended up wearing Yellow more than any man who didn’t win the Tour. He was one of the greatest climbers in the history of the sport, but both his knees and his time trialing would let him down when it mattered.
The French team was not only talented, it had a magnificent esprit de corps. When Leducq crashed descending the Galibier and thought his chances of winning the 1930 Tour were over, they rallied his spirits and dragged him up to the leaders and led him out for the stage win.
1934 was Team France’s last year of glory when it won 19 of the 23 stages. That is dominance writ large.
Cycling historian Jean-Paul Ollivier thinks the 1933 French team was the greatest assemblage of pre-war cycling talent ever. I think one could pick any or all of the 1930’s Tour teams as the best, and with the exception of the 1908 Peugeot team, one could hardly go wrong.
And then the magic ended. In 1935 Magne crashed out of the Tour and although Pélissier raced the 1935 edition, it was as an independent rider, not part of Team France. With the absence of the leadership these two riders gave the team, the magnificent cohesion that had allowed the French to steamroller their opposition evaporated. Romain Maes of Belgium mercilessly took the French and the rest of the peloton apart. Second-place Ambrogio Morelli of Italy finished almost 18 minutes behind. The best-placed French rider was Speicher, at 54 minutes and 29 seconds.
The only time the French would win the Tour again before the war was in 1937, and the tainted officiating in favor of the French and Lapébie still smells.
The French would come back to dominate the Tour de France during golden age of racing, the 1950s (and beyond), with Louison Bobet ( winner in 1953, ’54, ’55), Roger Walkowiak (1956) and Jacques Anquetil (1957, ’61, ’62, ’63 and ’64).
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Until now there has been an expectation that so goes the team, so goes the bike industry sponsor. As evidenced by comments on this and other blogs, at least some members of the cycling public have viewed a bike sponsor’s lack of repudiation of the team of a convicted doper as a tacit approval of their doping.
Unfortunately, a sponsor such as Trek hasn’t got the ability to elect to sponsor, say, Formula 1 if they decide cycling is just too tarnished by doping. Liberty Seguros’ next sponsorship stop in sports could be golf, but that’s not possible for Specialized or SRAM.
Faust could appreciate such a dilemma.
So Shimano has announced that it will pull its sponsorship of a team if anyone in its management is found to be guiding a doping program for its riders. If a rider is caught doping, Shimano wants an explanation and a future containment plan to prevent a repeat. A second event is grounds for termination of the sponsorship.
Termination would be catastrophic to any team. A return of all Shimano equipment would leave riders unable to train or race until new equipment could be purchased, which could easily take a week or more and could cost upwards of six figures, an amount few ProTour teams (and no Pro Continental or Continental teams) would have lying around.
But let’s be real. While it is possible and maybe even likely that some directors have at least suspicions—if not outright knowledge—of his team members’ activities, the Festina Affair ended any large-scale participation by team management in its riders’ doping. We now have plausible deniability.
Unfortunately, a complete lack of knowledge of riders’ medical programs has a nasty consequence: the director appears clueless. Hans-Michael Holczer’s shock over Bernard Kohl’s and Stefan Schumacher’s positive tests made him look ineffectual.
But what of positive tests by individual riders? The number of teams that have had more than one positive inside of three months is perhaps surprising. Just yesterday the UCI announced the suspension of three riders (three!) riders from Liberty Seguros. Saunier Duval, Phonak and Astana are but three other names that come to mind.
The question is whether Shimano would actually revoke the sponsorship should the possibility come to pass and which teams are actually threatened by such action. Columbia-HTC, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Française des Jeux, Garmin-Slipstream, Rabobank and Skil-Shimano are the ProTour and Pro Continental teams Shimano sponsors. Of these, two (Euskaltel and Rabobank) have had high-profile doping issues in the last few seasons.
While it is fairly certain that most bike industry sponsors have some language in their contracts that allow the termination of a sponsorship as a result of a doping offense, Shimano is unusual in taking such a public stand. Perhaps other companies will have the courage to take a similar stand.
Shimano’s Statement in full:
With this statement, Shimano would like to make clear to all parties involved that we would like to strive for a fair and drugs free sport to protect the future of cycling for next generations. Besides the bad impact to the reputation of the sport, we all know Doping and Drugs are damaging and destroying the health and image of especially young people in and outside of the sport. Therefore we are taking a firm stand against doping in general and in the cycling sport in particular.
Basic guidelines in Shimano’s anti doping policy:
• All our contracts and sponsorship-relations are made under the condition and in the belief that there is no doping involved in the particular team or with the individual athletes.
• If the team management of one of our sponsored teams (no matter in which cycling discipline) is involved in any doping affair, we will stop our sponsorship of this team immediately.
• If an individual rider is involved in any doping affair without the knowledge of the team management, the team will be given the chance to give a clear explanation and a future improvement & control plan to Shimano, upon that it will be decided to continue the sponsoring or not. If another doping incident occurs within the same team, we will keep the option of terminating our sponsorship contract
• Terminating a sponsorship contract means return of all Shimano materials or other contributions that have been supplied to the concerned team immediately. This anti doping policy is already stated in our ongoing sponsorship contracts but Shimano feels it is valuable to emphasize this ones more to make it clear for everybody what is our opinion about the use of doping in sport. For all our future sponsorship negotiations it is essential for us that the teams show us their anti doping policy in advance.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
There are as many reasons for wins as there are riders in the peloton. It’s rare that you can look at a win and pinpoint the exact reason behind it, beyond that of hard work. Thomas Voekler’s win in the fifth stage of the Tour de France is one rare occasion where the cause is obvious as bump in Michael Jackson’s record sales.
Sure, Voekler of Bbox Bouygues Telecom had to drop breakaway companions Anthony Geslin and Yauheni Hutarovich (Francaise des Jeux), Marcin Sapa (Lampre), Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha) and Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano), but that’s not why he won.
He won because 19 teams said, ‘We’re not chasing.’
It’s an odd day when 19 teams decide not to work hard enough to bring a breakaway back. You can’t say they didn’t work, but we all know there’s a big difference between walking the halls and playing warden to the escapees’ convict. And riding tempo for a whole stage is a tantamount to buying a lottery ticket and refusing to look at it.
But what could cause so many teams to unite? Aside from almost nothing, believing someone else will eat the fish you just hooked might do it. It’s interesting to note that the rider’s union is notorious for being perhaps the weakest in professional sports. It’s not really a distinction you want, so seeing something unite such an easily fractured bunch is memorable.
Columbia-HTC brought them together. Now, this was no kumbaya-singing-‘round-the-campfire fellowship. No, this was a genuine Us vs. Them. The question on the minds of 19 teams was, ‘Why should we work to bring a breakaway back if the net result will be us getting beaten in the sprint by Mark Cavendish?’
It seems that Cav’s two consecutive wins inspired a case of mass ennui powerful enough to allow a breakaway to stay away and take the stage, ensuring yet another day of no victory for 15 teams.
Mark Cavendish certainly isn’t the first rider to win back-to-back stages of the Tour de France. After all, Mario Cipollini won four stages in a row in 1999. Those wins came on the heels of Tom Steels taking two stages. If the peloton had ideas the way it did today, we’ll never know; the next day was the Metz time trial, which Armstrong put his name on. As a side note, the 1999 Tour de France is significant in modern Tour history because only 12 men won stages. Four riders accounted for all but six stage wins. Ouch.
Then, in 2004, Lance Armstrong won five stages in seven days, including three in a row. And yet the peloton didn’t give up. Why? Well, for one, the stages Armstrong scored could only have been won by a select few riders. For the average Tour rider, those stages were already beyond reach and Armstrong’s supremacy was a known fact.
But something is different with Cav. Something about him seems unstoppable and in the world of sprinting, that impression is distasteful and unusual, if not entirely foreign.
But what if those teams had really turned on the steam and brought the breakaway back, say with 5km to go? What then? We would have been cheated out of seeing Voekler drop his companions and put his head down.
Flat Tour de France stages are a special the way bachelor parties are special. For most riders, such an opportunity to break loose comes along maybe once per year, much like friends getting married. It’s a legendary day, full of efforts you really wouldn’t want to repeat on a daily basis. They make for great memories, even if the big prize isn’t yours.
But winning one is like the wedding. For the average rider, this chance may only come once in a lifetime. You’ve done everything right and now all eyes are on you making good on your promise to work hard.
What I saw in Voekler’s salute echoed that feeling, that the kisses he blew were a thanks to the crowd for their support, an acknowledgement that his place in such a grand spectacle was ordinarily very small and he was grateful to have a chance to be on stage.