Christmas Eve and all through Rotterdam, most creature are stirring, riders, sporting directors, mechanics, soigneurs, journalists and fans. And old Chris Prudhomme, with his staff in the thousands, is just settling in for three weeks of chaos. The cobbles are dusty, and the Alps, they are high, the Pyrenees waiting to make riders cry. And all over the planet, folks like you and me, are drooling in wonder at the spectacle to be.
Yeah. Sorry about that. How else to quantify the anticipation and expectation we feel on this last day before the Grand Depart? This race we’ve talked about nearly every day since the last version ended is finally upon us again.
The story lines are legion already. Lance v. Alberto, whether you believe there’s even a contest there, no one will stop talking about it, especially on American television. The Schlecks and Saxo Bank seem to be breaking up, but in the meantime, they may have the strongest team with which to attack the general classification. Mark Cavendish v Thor Hushovd is on again, but we have to wonder if Tyler Farrar will crash their little party. And what of the Italians? BMC and Cadel Evans? Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky?
Do I dare even mention the white elephant in the room, Floyd Landis?
We have argued here, in the past, that the Tour de France is the biggest bike race in the world, arguably the biggest sporting event, because it tells the best stories. No other event cultivates and propagates its history so effectively, and so no other race captures our attention so completely.
Just in enumerating the stories already simmering in advance of the Prologue, we can see some of what the 2010 Tour de France will be. But, with history as our guide, we also know that it will be all of that and more.
This week’s Group Ride is about stories. What do you think the most compelling plot line of the 2010 Grand Boucle will be? Is it something already on our minds, or is it a thing that will come to light as the race goes on? Will it be the end of a veteran, or the emergence of a new star? Will it be the racing, or the personal squabbles that invariably go along with it.
Think of this as our prologue. Three weeks to go.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The question is not whether or not Alberto Contador is the favorite for the upcoming Tour de France. The question is who will challenge him and how?
Because there is only one ITT in this year’s Grand Boucle, it could be argued that Andy Schleck’s inherent disadvantage is not as great as last year’s. Will it be enough to cut the 4 minutes 11 seconds he lost to Contador in 2009? Maybe, maybe not. What will certainly be key to Schleck’s ascendancy is brother Fränk’s ability to break Contador’s rhythm in the high mountains. Still, Astana has proven themselves capable of competing in the big races, and el Pistolero will have help from Alexandre Vinokourov in July.
Lance Armstrong’s Radio Shack squad will have added incentive to top the podium next month. First of all, their captain isn’t getting any younger. This is quite probably his last crack at the maillot jaune. Second, having been snubbed by Unipublic for the Vuelta, the Shack has no reason to hold back Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner and Andreas Kloeden in France. All three of those riders have the ability to climb at the pointy end of things, giving the Lance every advantage against Contador, especially if he can get his time trialing on line. Of course, so far he has sucked this season. Is he sandbagging or just getting old?
According to my friend Jarvis, Team Sky, Dave Brailsford and Bradley Wiggins don’t really think they can win the Tour this go round. Jarvis’s ears are closer to the ground in the UK, so let’s assume he’s right. Wiggins probably doesn’t have the form or the support to equal his fourth place from ’09 anyway.
That leaves us with the Italians, and Liquigas may well have the best chance against Contador and the Astanas. Ivan Basso, Roman Kreuziger, Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Sagan, Robert Kiserlovski et. al. come into the Tour brimming with confidence. Basso seems back to top form after his Giro victory. Sagan has been the young revelation of the season, and Nibali has shown himself capable of riding with the best GC riders in the world. Will Basso turn super domestique for Nibali? Does Sagan have any more gas in the tank to help out? Liquigas have, thus far, shown that they can ride as a team, which, in the end, may be their best asset.
Here at Red Kite Prayer, we enjoy pro racing. If the Tour plays out as we all expect it to, it will be the best summer entertainment on offer. Having said that, RKP celebrates the survival of the breakaway. May we all hope for a dark horse, or whole herd of dark horses, to stampede the French countryside next month.
The middle of June. The precipice. The brink. Just a few weeks left to tune up for the Tour de France, which means that all the “just riding this race as training” is almost over. Top Tour contenders will be getting in their last minute collarbone fractures at the Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse. Aerodynamic positions are set. The UCI is getting its crack Reject-a-Bike squad ready for the time trials, and the AFLD and UCI are ratcheting up their those-guys-don’t-know-what-they’re-doing rhetoric in anticipation of some really wearisome l’Equipe headlines.
At this stage we are beginning to draw up our list of favorites, a list that must begin with Alberto Contador and include Andy Schleck, but from that point breaks off and meanders through the peloton with a lot of maybes and possiblys.
From last year’s podium there is Lance Armstrong to consider. The now 38-year-old former champion and globe-trotting cancer fighter has had an early season to forget, one in which he made the biggest news by being accused of serial doping. Again. Between injuries, illnesses and general lack of form, you have to wonder if the Lance v. Alberto narrative we’re bound to have crammed down our collective throats is even worth spinning in the first place.
Then there’s Bradley Wiggins. Team Sky’s million dollar baby has thus far flattered to deceive in the black and blue of his new squad. With a nose for the controversial headline, Mr. Wiggins’ 2010 has been remarkable for an utter lack of remarkableness. He can’t possibly sneak up on the competition this year, but could expectations for the Brit be any lower?
And what of the Italians? Ivan Basso won the Giro going away, but could he possibly be strong enough to do the double? Or will he turn super domestique for Vincenzo Nibali, the young talent who served him so well on their native roads?
World Champion Cadel Evans can’t be discounted entirely, but the Giro might have proven that BMC don’t have the riders to support a Grand Tour winner. Evans has done the rainbow stripes proud, but the last time the World Champ won the Tour was Bernard Hinault in 1981, nearly thirty years ago.
You’ve also got riders like Denis Menchov, last season’s Giro winner, moving his focus to the Tour in an attempt to round out his palmares. In a similar situation to Evans, you have to wonder if Rabobank have the riders to deliver Menchov to the top step. The Russian also has an amusing habit of falling off his bike, which is usually a bad idea in July in France. Ask Joseba Beloki.
This week’s Group Ride looks at the favorites for the maillot jaune and wonders who is in the best form and why? Is it one of the riders mentioned above or is there an outsider you think has the goods? Has Contador done too much with wins in Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice and Vuelta a Castilla y León, not to mention his current escapades at the Dauphiné? Will Andy Schleck’s knee be strong enough to let him dual with Contador in the high mountains? Let the pre-race chatter begin.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Let’s just get this one thing straight before we go any further. Alberto Contador does NOT hug teammates he doesn’t like. If the 2009 Astana saga didn’t teach us that, then we learned nothing at all. So, all you conspiracy-theorists who think Vinokourov attacked his teammate when the aforementioned teammate wasn’t expecting it, I’m sorry. Circumstances on the ground just don’t confirm that theory.
If anything they suggest that Astana and Contador have now learned how to use psychological misdirection to spring a surprise on the peloton. Be afraid, Johann Bruyneel. Be very afraid.
Right, so now, onto the race.
Wow! Even watching the emotionally flat, Sporza web-feed in Flemish I was excited by this year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. There were the Schlecks mixing it up at the front of the race. There were attacks galore from all and sundry. There was Alejandro Valverde sucking on Phillipe Gilbert’s wheel. And Gilbert! Was anyone NOT rooting for this guy to catch the break?
Alas, he just left it too late.
Even as they came inside 2k to go, I thought maybe Kolobnev was going to pull a Tchmil on Vinokourov, storming away at the death in that impassive Russian way. But no, instead we got Vinokourov, some people’s villain, whipping the crowd into the sort of frenzy usually reserved for professional wrestling events.
It was a beautiful race, if not a wholly pleasing result. Despite all that, we’ve gotten 24 solid hours of hand-wringing drama out of it, so, to my mind, a fitting end to the Spring Classics season.
No one predicted a Kazakh victory, so we remain awash in stickers at RKP HQ. No worries. There will be plenty more opportunities to win.
As to the many recovery solutions you proffered, some were funny, some were old-school reliable and a few had the novelty of a new group from Campagnolo: attractive, yes … but reliable? We’ll let you know how a few of these work out. Not trying the milk bath, though.
Next up is what I’d call the season’s taint race, the Tour of Romandie. It taint a classic, and it taint a Grand Tour, a dubious distinction indeed.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’m just like Lance Armstrong. We’re both 38, both have kids. True, I have both my nuts and never take a private jet to work, but other than that, we’re pretty much the same guy. Oh, and I don’t do Michelob Ultra commercials. Minor detail. Other than that…difficult to tell us apart.
Like Lance I’ve been sick too much in this early part of the season. I had a chest cold that put me off two wheels in the middle of January. I had the swine flu that cost me a couple weeks, and now I’m into another chest cold. I’d blame the kids, but I might just be that wildebeest at the back of the herd that wonders why everyone’s running away. Does anyone else smell lion?
My buddy Lance must be feeling the same way. Since THE COMEBACK®, things haven’t gone so well. Like me, he’s had some problems with illness. There was a rotovirus that forced him to pull out of Circuit de la Sarthe and then ran him down for Criterium International. His season’s not going so well. The lions are definitely circling. That Contador lion looks especially hungry.
If Lance was disappointed I would fully understand. I was in much better shape in 2005, too. Since then I’ve crossed that invisible border, the one that means you’re more sore the second day than the first, the one that sees your body stop responding quite so predictably to really, really hard work, the one that robs you of fast-twitch muscle fiber, but leaves your competitive brain intact.
Is Lance like a legion of boxing legends, Louis, Ali, Ray Leonard, Holyfield, whose lion hearts were betrayed by wobbly legs and dwindling strength. Is it the peculiar foible of some legends to stay on too long, believing they’ve still got it when they haven’t?
I haven’t got it anymore. Ask the guys I’ve been playing soccer with for the last ten years. Ask my mountain biking friends. Watch me sucking wind up hills I used to trounce. I have replaced power and panache with steadiness and a sense of humor.
After my kids were born, I started crashing more too. For no good reason. I was tired. I lacked concentration. I’ve come to call it ‘Menchov’s Syndrome.’ It’s a degenerative condition. Like life.
Last season, Lance targeted the Giro d’ Italia until a collar bone break (his first serious injury ever … if you don’t count testicular cancer) put off his build up, and he had to turn to the Tour, only to have a teammate demonstrate for him in no uncertain terms just who was the “strongest on the road.” Lance hasn’t won a race yet. This can’t feel good.
Going out on top has this effect. The retired athlete retains this memory of having been untouchable, a knowledge of the techniques that brought such overwhelming success, and the false confidence born of underestimating the growth of the sport in his absence.
“If I do what I used to do, I will succeed as I used to,” he thinks.
I can tell you from personal experience that things are not as they ever were. The last three times I’ve had both wheels of my mountain bike off the ground I’ve ended up in the bushes, picking gravel out of my elbows and wondering what went wrong. I’ve lost half a step, half a pedal stroke and quite possibly one of my lungs. And I’m only five months older than the Lance.
If I could sit with the former champ, he’d have a Michelob Ultra, and I’d have a tonic water with lime. I’d say, “Look champ, there’s nothing back there for you. You can ride. You can place, and you can show. But that top podium step ain’t there for you anymore. So ride as long as you enjoy it, but don’t ride to win. Don’t ride to win.”
A third place in the Tour de France is a great result for a 37-year-old rider just back from three years off. It’s amazing. Raymond Poulidor finished second at 40, but don’t compare results. Don’t do it. Because while it’s only two steps to the top from last year, the steps all lead down.
As I’ve learned over the last few months, there are whole vistas of suffering and disappointment I’ve yet to peer over. I could take this chest cold I have now and ride it into pneumonia based on the fact that I used to be able to ride through minor illnesses. Or, I can take the time off and come back next week. I can spend more time with my kids than my bikes. I could even ride bikes WITH my kids. Life is full of good shit to do, but you can seek the suffering if you want. Sometimes that’s noble suffering, and sometimes it’s vain suffering. The trick is knowing the difference.
I get it, Lance. I get it. Cause I’m just like you.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Far be it from me to disagree with Paul Sherwen. That guy has probably raced more pro races than I’ve seen.
Having said that, Sherwen’s take on Alberto Contador’s Stage 7 attack at Paris-Nice last weekend really surprised me. As the stage played out and the GC boys came to the front, Contador attacked in a group that included his two main rivals, Alejandro Valverde and Luis León-Sánchez, both from Caisse d’Epargne.
Sherwen thought it unwise for Contador to drop all his teammates, isolating himself with a pair of riders less than a minute behind him on GC. At first blush, this is an entirely reasonable criticism, and one that highlights the weaknesses of Astana’s roster and maybe, on some level, Contador’s tactical naivete.
To me, however, it seemed like a smart move, and one that demonstrated that Contador has learned much from his Grand Tour wins. It was just last summer, after all, that el Pistolero found himself alone with the Schleck brothers on a steep Tour climb, watching as they took turns trying to break him with attack after attack. He was able to hang in that day, but rivals took note. It might not be possible to beat the diminutive Spaniard one-on-one, but there is greater strength in numbers.
And so, coming to the pointy end of Paris-Nice, Contador did the simple math. The Caisse boys were clearly going to attack. None of his teammates would be able to stay with them, so rather than sit back and defend, he went on the attack, effectively preventing either Valverde or León-Sánchez from imposing the pace.
It was a blistering attack. His rivals sat on and let him work, probably hoping he’d punch himself out, but he played it perfectly, holding his speed high enough to discourage a burst from either one, while still riding within himself.
What Sherwen seemed to assume was that there was someone other than Contador on the Astana bus who could stay with Valverde and León-Sánchez on the attack. That was clearly not the case. What el Pistolero knew that Sherwen didn’t is that neither of the Caisse riders could stay with him on the attack either.
It was bold, smart and decisive. And it put him on the top step of the podium.
At this summer’s Tour de France, the GC competition will be much stiffer than it was at Paris-Nice. The Shleck brothers will be there. Cadel Evans with his new BMC team. The Shack and their geriatric posse. The chances of a strange alliance coming together are good. That sort of thing is Johan Bruyneel’s stock-in-trade.
In short, the world’s top stage racer just won’t be able to attack for three weeks. What worked on the road into Nice, won’t work in the French heat, day after day, up Alps and down Pyrenees. But then, come the summer, the Astana bus should have Alexander Vinokourov on it. David de la Fuente will be there for the mountains, too. Maybe also Oscar Pereiro and some of the other riders who’ve been busy at Tirreno-Adriatico, or Maxim Iglinsky who won this year’s Eroica.
If anything, Astana have proven this spring that they have the peloton’s strongest man AND a team that can support him, if and when he needs it, which, despite Paul Sherwen’s doubts, he didn’t on Sunday.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
There’s a reason races have finish lines. It’s so the riders know when they can stop riding and everyone else knows who won. There are a few of us, myself included, who really think Alberto Contador is going to win Paris-Nice, but there remains the issue of that pesky finish line that’s got to be crossed.
And between here, where we are now, which is to say perched between Stages One and Two, all the GC boys packed together, and that big banner that signifies the end, are a million and two opportunities to lose the race. In fact, just today the Pistolero took a spill on the pavement that called into question, for me, his team’s ability to keep him out of harm’s way. Because the aforementioned contact between world’s greatest stage racer and asphalt occurred within the final 3k of racing, Contador was given the same time as the group he was riding in, so no major time loss. But other favorites, like Alejandro Valverde, Lars Boom and Luis León-Sánchez managed to stay far enough out in front to avoid trouble.
Not EVERYONE thinks this is Contador’s race to lose though. Randomactsofcycling thinks León-Sánchez will take the title, and Soleur and James can see Chavanel in yellow. No one picked Lars Boom. Except Lars Boom. Long live the underdog.
While Paris-Nice grinds slowly southward, the Montepaschi Strade Bianche, aka L’Eroica, wound its way across Tuscany, crunching across the legendary white gravel roads near Siena. L’Eroica is a tune up for Tirreno-Adriatico, but it is also Italy’s answer to the cobbled classics of Northern Europe.
Accordingly, many of the classics specialists showed up, hoping to add a win in this race, which is rapidly emerging as a big event on the calendar. They all lost to Maxim Iglinsky, whose biggest win to date is a stage at the Dauphiné in 2007. Iglinsky’s win puts paid to the notion that Astana’s Kazakh contingent is just pack fodder.
Hopefully, this race is going to get more coverage in coming years.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’m not sure why, but every time I hear someone mention Paris-Nice, I envision Omar Sharif standing on the deck of a ski chalet wearing a Russian ushanka and imploring some cream-skinned Euro princess to follow him to the Orient. There is, literally, no good reason for this association, so let’s talk about bike racing instead.
Paris-Nice, “the race to the sun,” rolls off the start line on Sunday, (American viewers can catch some of the race on Versus) the 7th. Eight stages will wind their way south from Montfort-l’Amaury (Prologue), south of Paris to the Promenade des Anglais in Nice (Stage 7). For the big pros who hope to compete in the Grand Tours later in the season, Paris-Nice serves as the first coveted win.
Last year, the clear favorite, Alberto Contador, blew up on Stage 7, gifting the race to his Spanish compatriot Luis León Sánchez. It was, to date, really the only sign that Contador is not a robot.
Interestingly, the French anti-doping organization AFLD will NOT be working with the UCI on Paris-Nice this year, after AFLD director Pierre Bordry accused the UCI of favoring Lance Armstrong in 2009. UCI head Pat McQuaid didn’t appreciate the accusation, so the AFLD has been pushed aside. All very mature and professional, as usual.
Historical notes: Sean Kelly is the king of Paris-Nice having won seven straight titles between 1982 and 1988. Also, of note, during the 2003 race, Kazakhstan’s Andrei Kivilev died due to head injury sustained in an accident. His death prompted the UCI to mandate the use of helmets.
So who will win?
Contador, as the mostly undisputed top stage-racer in the world, is favorite, but León Sánchez and his Caisse d’Epargne teammate Alejandro Valverde have to be considered as well. In addition to that crack (not a drug reference) Spanish contingent, Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, Cervelo Test Team’s Heinrich Haussler, Garmin’s Christian Vande Velde, Liquigas’ Roman Kreuziger, HTC Columbia’s Tony Martin, Radio Shack’s Levi Leipheimer, Saxo’s Fränk Schleck are all riders to watch.
Some, like Haussler and maybe Martin, will be looking more for stage wins, but this is a race where a big stage victory can shake up the GC.
So let’s hear it? Who are you picking? Who are you pulling for? And why?
But of course, even before we get to Paris-Nice, we have what will hopefully become one of the legendary classics—Montepaschi Strade Bianche, better known as the Eroica. While most of the talk lately has been about who is ready for Paris-Nice, Garmin-Transitions Ryder Hesjedal, who has twice finished in the top 10 on this event, has cited it as a big priority for his spring.
Previous winner Fabian Cancellara will be back and last week’s winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Juan Antonio Flecha, who has indicated Paris-Roubaix is among his goals, will both be lining up.
So who’s your call?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When Lance Armstrong came back to cycling in 2009, it was as though a tidal wave of mixed messages, mixed feelings and mixed blessings crashed on pro cycling. Immediately, Alberto Contador, cycling’s next big thing, had his program turned upside down and shaken. A cycling press that had watched its readership ebb away slowly during the retirement years, suddenly found itself in high demand again. And race promoters salivated as record crowds thronged the roadside to cheer and/or jeer the return of the king.
(To be completely and entirely clear about my own stance on Lance, I will say that I am almost completely agnostic and ambivalent as regards the Texan. To be sure, he’s done a lot, both for the sport and for cancer survivors, but his methods and manner don’t appeal to me much. He’s done amazing things, but he’s been ungracious, immature, bullying, etc. in doing them. Perhaps like Contador, I feel respect, but not admiration.)
To me the oddest aspect of Lance’s return to the peloton is the shadow he seems to cast over all those who come near him. We have written recently in these digital pages about both Contador and Greg LeMond, two great champions in their own rights. And yet, in writing critically (or even neutrally) of each of them, there has been some assumption that that criticism equates to tacit support of Armstrong.
There was the issue of Contador’s wheels, and whether or not he had been denied the use of wheels that Armstrong had been given. In trying to parse the rider’s statements, corroborate them with quotes from his mechanic and looking through dozens of photos, we tried to see if the underlying controversy was real. What we came up with was inconclusive. Contador’s story is completely plausible, however the causes and behind the scenes machinations are unclear. Was there a misunderstanding? Was there malice? All possible, and yet circumstantial evidence doesn’t equal truth, and perhaps in this case finding the truth isn’t all that important in light of a larger truth. Contador fell out with Armstrong and Bruyneel but still won the race.
To examine the situation, to call into question the various stories and sub-stories circulating as regards a pair of bicycle wheels does not entail either endorsing or condemning the behavior of the parties involved. To say that Contador’s mechanic may have gotten it wrong is not to say that Amstrong and Bruyneel behaved correctly.
Simultaneous to the summer saga at Team Astana, was the slowly unwinding legal dispute between Greg LeMond and Trek Bicycles. LeMond felt Trek had done a crappy job of selling his bikes. Trek felt LeMond had done damage to the brand himself. There was evidence to suggest that both sides had legitimate arguments to make, and yet, somehow, Armstrong’s shadow fell over this proceeding too. Did Lance tell Trek to can LeMond for the perceived insinuation that Amstrong doped? Did LeMond intend to leverage his beef with Trek into an inquisition into Armstrong’s alleged doping practices?
To say that LeMond ought not go after the prized asset (Armstrong) of his primary business partner (Trek) in this way is not tantamount to asserting that Armstrong is clean or nice or better than LeMond in any way. The two issues CAN be mutually exclusive of one another.
The unfortunate part about Lance Armstrong’s return to bike racing is that the shadow he casts is very long. You can’t take the publicity he brings, the dollars, without also taking the drama. Everything becomes polarized. If you are not for Contador, you must be for Armstrong. If you comment on a rider that once road with Armstrong being suspended for doping, you are required to suggest that Armstrong is probably also guilty. Logic goes out the window. Feeling comes to the fore.
And yet, not everyone views cycling through these prisms. Lance Armstrong is not cycling. He is not Alberto Contador. He is not Greg LeMond. He is not Bradley Wiggins or Mark Cavendish or Ivan Basso or Tom Boonen. He is not the UCI or WADA. He is not the entire history of the sport.
They say that power corrupts. At the top of the sport, where the real money changes hands and the real decisions get made, that corrupting influence must be profound. It leads people to say and do things that the rest of us view with mouths agape. We watch it like a soap opera, like gladiatorial combat.
We are fortunate here at RKP that no one pays us to say things we do not believe. There is no power that accrues to a web site like this one that allows us to dictate the behavior of top racers or industry players. When Lance Armstrong’s shadow falls across what we do, we can simply get up, throw our legs over our bikes and ride away into the sun.
Now, some will interpret what I’ve written here as some defense of the work we’ve done, a riposte to the uncivil comments and calls for I’m-not-sure-what. And to a degree, I suppose, that’s what it is. More than anything, really, it’s an attempt to stop talking about Lance Armstrong. It is perhaps ironic that to do so, in the end, requires so much talking about Lance Armstrong.
Well, this was sort of a lay up, wasn’t it? What sort of a pessimist would say the coming season wasn’t going to be as good as last? Who could sell the future out so early in the year?
It’s curious to me that so many people, in stating that 2010 would be better, cited the coming Tour de France battle between Armstrong and Contador. Is it that the TdF is the biggest race of the year, and so, on some level, the single biggest arbiter of the season’s quality, or is it rather that this is the main Euro race people book time to sit down and watch?
Personally, I am really interested to see how the new super teams do, Sky, the Shack, BMC. They take to the battle alongside other fairly new squads like Cervelo Test Team and Katusha. I wonder if we’re not entering a new era, where sponsors with more global vision join the sport. For every behemoth like Sky that joins the fray, we seem to lose a quixotic contributor like Milram.
And how will today’s young superstars like Cavendish, Contador, Schleck, Boasson-Hagen, Martin, Nibali, et. al. plot their career paths? Will some of them follow the Armstrong/Bruyneel model, prepping and training for one big event each year, whether it’s the Tour or a single Classic? Or will they seek to flesh out their palmares a bit more, a la Merckx, Hinault, et. al.
So many questions. I guess this is what the weeks before the season begins are supposed to be like, full of frenzied anticipation. Or maybe I just need to drink less coffee.