As I mentioned recently, I’m less interested in completely monetizing RKP to the nth degree than I am in getting stuff produced that I want to wear. It’s a selfish drive, no way around that. I like T-shirts that make cycling cool. Your run-of-the-mill century T-shirt is such a train wreck of sponsors and lousy illustrations I use them for rags. I don’t mean any disrespect to the events; I’ve invariably enjoyed myself, but those Ts are to cycling chic what back hair is to male models.
And though I self-select as an introvert, I do dig it when someone tells me that they like something I’m wearing. I had a woman come up to me and tell me she liked the back panel on the RKP bibs (the end is near). Apparently, she has a sense of humor. And I’ve had all sorts of people come up to me and comment on the Suffer T. I’ve sold a couple to non-cyclists.
Last year I wrote a feature that examined Eddy Merckx’ 1972 season for peloton magazine. I put forward the idea that it was the single greatest year of cycling any rider had ever put together—would ever put together. In winning Milan-San Remo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Giro d’Italia (four stages along the way), the Tour de France (seven stages and the points jersey), the Tour of Lombardy and the hour record, he put together in one year what would be a fine career for any other cyclist. And if you examine all the minor stuff he won along the way you get the impression that his vocabulary didn’t include the word “peak.” He was badass on a full-time basis.
So I asked myself a simple question: Why not have a killer T-shirt to celebrate that?
I contacted my old friend Bill Cass to do the illustration. For Bicycle Guide readers, his name should be familiar. We used Cass’ work any time we could dream up an opportunity. Later, when I started Asphalt I was able to recruit him to do some fun stuff for us there as well. For those who don’t know him, Bill rose through the junior ranks racing in New England, eventually racing in the senior ranks as a Cat. 2 on the Prince Superoni team. He spent most of his career as a shoe designer at Nike and spent years working personally with Lance Armstrong on Nike designs that Armstrong wore to seven Tour de France wins. These days, he’s on Whidby Island near Seattle and has a studio there doing an fascinating variety of work.
The illustration in question will also find its way into print form, but that’s a ways off. First, we need to get these T-shirts circulating. They will begin shipping the week following Sea Otter, where we’ll be next week. Because of the art involved, these will be a bit more expensive than our previous Ts.
I want this to be flat-out the coolest T-shirt in your wardrobe. I want people to ask you about it. I want you to be able to say with a straight face than the New York Yankees and Manchester United put together couldn’t have a season like this.
I have a similar issue with baseball caps. Even though I love the baseball cap I have from a friend’s winery, I’ve wanted a cap that speaks to what I’m about as a cyclist. So I had these made. I’ve been wearing the sample for a couple of weeks.
And yes, Captain Correction, I’m aware that the phrase is ordinarily “new wares.” I’m punny that way.
Milan-San Remo has probably weathered more controversies in its 106-year history than any other classic. Last Saturday’s race, headed by Simon Gerrans’ upset victory, was no exception. And the announcement by the organizers on Monday that they are (again) thinking of making a few modifications to the 298km course has only added fuel to the perennial arguments about the race not being hard enough to reveal a true champion. But let’s first look at this year’s edition, how some riders raced smarter than others, how misfortune played an important role, and how teams could have changed their tactics to achieve a more favorable outcome.
The big pre-race favorite according to the European media was Team Sky’s world champion Mark Cavendish, but the Manx sprinter rode like an amateur on the challenging climb to Le Mànie, with more than two hours of racing still remaining. He was unable to hang on to the peloton being pulled by the Liquigas-Cannondale squad, and despite his Austrian teammate Bernie Eisel dropping back to pace him on the second part of the 4.7km uphill and down the twisting descent, Cavendish only returned to the back half of a divided peloton — which never caught back to the leaders.
The four Sky riders with Cavendish and Eisel in that 50-rider group chased for a long time, hoping to catch back so they could help their other team leader, Edvald Boasson Hagen. But it was already obvious when Cavendish was dropped on the Primavera’s first serious climb that he was on a bad day and he would never have been a factor on the climbs near the end. So, even though he’s the world champ and a former San Remo winner, Cavendish should have been left to his own devices. Tam Sky would then have had a chance to truly help Boasson Hagen. As it was, the Norwegian had only Swedish teammate Thomas Lövkvist for company in the front group. They finished 25th and 30th respectively, 20 seconds behind the winners, after being caught behind a crash on the descent of the last hill, the Poggio.
Besides Cavendish, the European media’s other big favorite was Vincenzo Nibali, fresh from his winning Tirreno-Adriatico. His Liquigas-Cannondale team did enjoy an almost perfect Milan-San Remo. It set the fast pace on Le Mànie to dispose of Cavendish, along with sprinters such as Alessandro Petacchi, Tyler Farrar and Gerald Ciolek. It took control again up the next-to-last climb, La Cipressa, with Valerio Agnoli and Daniel Oss pulling the peloton at a ferocious speed. And the team’s tactics did succeed in keeping its leaders Nibali and Peter Sagan out of trouble, whereas another pre-race favorite, Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, got caught up in a small pileup that prevented him contesting the finale.
But perhaps Liquigas didn’t think out their tactics perfectly. They still had four men in the front group of 50 as they hit the foot of the Poggio with 10km to go, as did Rabobank (with sprinter Mark Renshaw), while both Katusha (for three-time San Remo winner Oscar Freire) and GreenEdge (with defending champion Matt Goss and Aussie champ Gerrans) had three riders left.
Rabobank took to the front on the last climb, hoping to keep the group together on the 3.7km climb for Renshaw, before Liquigas sent Agnoli away on a solo attack. The Liquigas team rider’s short-lived move did put pressure on the other teams and allowed Nibali to follow the wheels before making his decisive acceleration a kilometer from the top, but Agnoli’s energy might well have been reserved for a different tactic.
Liquigas could have had Oss set a high pace for Nibali, with Agnoli riding shotgun on Nibali’s wheel, followed by Sagan, the sprinter. In that scenario, when Nibali jumped on the steepest, 8-percent grade, instead of having Gerrans on his wheel, Agnoli, Oss and Sagan could have let a big gap open. That would have given Nibali a chance to reach the summit alone and maybe use his renowned descending skills to stay away for the win. Instead, the attentive Fabian Cancellara of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek was close enough to jump across to Nibali (and Gerrans) when the Poggio gradient eased before they began the zigzag plunge into San Remo. Of course, any different tactic by Liquigas may have favored the enormously strong Cancellara, who would probably have caught Nibali anyway.
An even more intense and uncertain finale would have resulted had misfortune not intervened. But for his fall on the Cipressa, Belgian champion Gilbert looked strong enough to be in the mix with Nibali on the Poggio. And in the first turn of the Poggio descent, the young Belgian Kris Boeckmans of Vacansoleil crashed right in front of a feisty Tom Boonen, which resulted in 30 riders getting delayed and unable to rejoin the 11 men chasing Cancellara, Gerrans and Nibali. Without that incident, a 40-man chase would almost certainly have closed the 12-second gap held by the front trio before the remaining 3km of flat roads into the finish. As it was, Gerrans sprinted to the win over Cancellara and Nibali only two seconds before Sagan led in the chase group.
Which brings us to the proposal by the organizers, RCS Sport, to move the finish line from the San Remo harbor to the Corso Cavalotti, 2km closer to the Poggio. Their goal is to avoid a field sprint and give attackers on the Poggio a better chance of staying away — especially a solo breakaway by a Nibali. A second part of their plan is to make the Cipressa climb more decisive by using an adjacent steeper road to encourage the strongest riders to create a select group of breakaways that could fight out the victory over the Poggio.
This latter scenario has been the goal at several points in the history of Milan-San Remo. After superstars Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and Louison Bobet took six consecutive wins in the immediate postwar years, the Classicissima turned into a sprinters’ paradise, with the race ending in bunch gallops through the late-1950s. As a result, the Poggio was inserted in 1960 and breakaways again became the more common outcome.
By the 1970s, field sprints again became more usual, and if it hadn’t been for the seven wins by Eddy Merckx, most of them earned in late breakaways, the organizers would have already started looking for more climbs to include. They did add the Cipressa in 1982 — and breakaways again became more common, resulting in high-profile victories for Giuseppe Saronni, Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly, Laurent Fignon, Gianni Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci.
As roads became smoother, teams stronger and riders collectively fitter and faster, Milan-San Remo again became the realm of the sprinters. From 1997 onward, there were four wins by Germany’s Erik Zabel, three by Spaniard Oscar Freire and single wins for Mario Cipollini, Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish, while attacks in the final kilometer were successful for Andreï Tchmil (1999), Filippo Pozzato (2006) and Cancellara (2009). There have been no successful long-distance breakaways since Gabriele Colombo won at San Remo 16 years ago.
This week’s RCS announcement has resulted in riders saying that the new finish — less than a kilometer from the end of the Poggio decent — is recipe for disaster. But few riders could go downhill faster than Cancellara did last Saturday, when the only Poggio crash happened near the top before the chasers hit top speed. As for toughening up the last third of the race, the inclusion of Le Mànie on 2008 is already having an effect (ask Cavendish!), while making the Cipressa a little harder will stretch the sprinters and perhaps encourage the attackers.
But whatever results from another set of changes to the course, Milan-San Remo will remain a classic that will always generate plenty of excitement — and controversy!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Stage-race organizers love a suspenseful final day. If that finale also incorporates a spectacular location amid beautiful scenery, so much the better. And should it happen to be a time trial, then that’s best of all.
A finish incorporating all three of those elements has been chosen by French race promoter Christian Prudhomme of ASO to end Paris-Nice this coming Sunday. The once iconic time trial up the Col d’Eze — a 9.6km climb on the spectacular Haute Corniche road from the villas of Nice to a 1,644-foot summit high above the Mediterranean — was last used to conclude the race in 1995. So perhaps this revival can return Paris-Nice to the glories it enjoyed in the winning years of stars such as Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche.
The Col d’Eze was first used for a Paris-Nice time trial in 1969 when the race was organized by longtime French cycling journalist, Jean Leulliot, who wanted a more suspenseful finish than a field sprint down by the beach. The uphill-time-trial experiment was a gift to Merckx, who won this final stage and the overall title three consecutive times.
The Cannibal was expected to win again in 1972. And going into the final stage, Merckx led second-placed Poulidor by 16 seconds. Everyone expected an easy win for the Belgian superstar, probably with a ride that bettered his Col d’Eze record of 20:14, set two years before. Some French reporters had even written their final race stories and taken an early train home.
At 36, French veteran Poulidor was thought to be past his best, and he didn’t look like posing a threat when Merckx was leading by a few seconds at the first time check, on pace to beating his own course record. But as the gradient eased on the higher parts of the climb, the French veteran got a second wind, and even though he appeared to be struggling, he was moving faster than the smooth-looking Merckx.
Amazingly, Poulidor stopped the clock atop the climb at 20:04, a new course record. All eyes then turned down the hill toward Merckx, who was still looking strong, though he later said his back was hurting from a crash earlier in the week. Even so, the Belgian was close to the record, too, but he was 22 seconds slower than Poulidor and so he lost that Paris-Nice by six seconds. What a dramatic finish!
Poulidor’s course record held up for 14 years, until Sean Kelly won the fifth of his record seven consecutive victories in Paris-Nice, improving the record for the 9.5km climb to 19:45. In his phenomenal win streak, Kelly twice lost the Col d’Eze time trial, both times to his compatriot Stephen Roche — losing by one second in 1985 and 10 seconds in ’87. Neither effort was good enough for Roche to overtake Kelly on overall time, and the younger Irishman never repeated the overall Paris-Nice victory he scored in his rookie season of 1981.
No rookies will win Paris-Nice this coming Sunday, but the Col d’Eze time trial should provide a brilliant showdown between the men who’ve already emerged at the top of this stage race’s overall standings: British road champion Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky, American veteran Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-Quick Step and third-year U.S. pro Tejay Van Garderen of BMC Racing. Shaping up to be another contender is Spain’s former world No. 1, Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, who should continue picking up time-bonus seconds in the uphill stage finishes before Sunday.
It will also be of great interest to see how close the protagonists come to (or by how much they beat) Kelly’s 1986 course record of 19:45. Even though this Sunday’s climb is tagged at 9.6km, it looks like the same course as the 9.5km one 26 years ago; distance measurements were usually rounded to the closest half-kilometer in the 1980s.
In 1986, Kelly raced a regular aluminum-framed Vitus road bike, which was light for its time but about 3 pounds heavier than today’s carbon creations; and Kelly didn’t use disc wheels or anything aero. So the chances are that Wiggins, Leipheimer or Van Garderen will break the Irish legend’s old course record by at least a minute, perhaps more.
More important than the record, of course, is the overall victory in Paris-Nice, the second of this year’s UCI WorldTour races. Should it be a three-way race up the hill out of Nice, then Wiggins can be seen as the Kelly of the race, Leipheimer as the Poulidor, and Van Garderen as the upstart Roche. And perhaps Valverde, should he continue to collect time bonuses, will be the wild card.
As for the climb, though much lower in elevation, the Col d’Eze is similar to the last 10km of Colorado’s Old Vail Pass, which was used for the decisive time trial in last year’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Van Garderen lost 51 seconds that day to stage winner Leipheimer, who took back his GC lead.
Leipheimer has also done well on other similar courses. One that comes to mind is the 2008 Vuelta a España’s last time trial up the Alto de Navacerrada, which the American won by beating overall winner Alberto Contador by 31 seconds, with a certain Valverde in third! Today, Leipheimer is 38 and as youthful as Poulidor, then 36, was in defeating Merckx on the Col d’Eze in 1972.
As for Van Garderen, his career bears similarities to that of the young Roche. The Irish prodigy won Paris-Nice in his rookie season, whereas the American, as a neo-pro in 2010, came in third at the Dauphiné, only a minute behind Contador; that demanding race in the Alps opened with a prologue time trial that featured a stiff climb, with Van Garderen placing second, only two seconds down on Contador.
Despite the two Americans’ challenges, Wiggins could be the Kelly of the 2012 Paris-Nice. We know the tall Brit is one of the sport’s top three time trialists, along with current world champion Tony Martin (who is riding for teammate Leipheimer at this race) and four-time champ Fabian Cancellara (who is competing in Tirreno-Adriatico this week). And we know that Wiggins has a steady climbing style, which he displayed in winning last year’s Dauphiné and placing third at the Vuelta a España. But will the Team Sky leader be able to put those two qualities together in an explosive time trial that lasts for some 18 minutes?
ASO race promoter Christian Prudhomme is probably asking the same question, and hoping, like his onetime predecessor Jean Leulliot did in 1969, that Paris-Nice will give him the spectacular finish he’s looking for.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When pro team directors complain about the UCI’s almost total ban on race radios, they say that without radios they can’t get essential information to their riders, especially when the race is in a state of flux. What they rarely mention is the role played by the motorcycle-mounted blackboard man.
There’s nothing high tech about this official’s job, which has barely changed over the past 50 years. All he does [editor's note: le Tour put into action its first female ardoisier at the 2011 edition of the race] is sit on the backseat of a motorcycle, constantly writing on the blackboard the time gaps between groups, the distance covered, and the bib numbers of the riders in the breakaways. That board is shown to the riders in the peloton before the motorcyclist accelerates up to the front of the race to give the leaders the same information — which is also relayed by Radio Tour to all the team cars.
It’s up to the riders on how to react to that information. They can make a decision on their own, discuss a course of action with teammates in their group, or call up their team car to hear what their director has to say. That’s how all pro races were conducted until 20 years ago — when teams began using radio communication, which allows teammates to chat with each other via their earpieces, or the director to give his riders tactical advice without having to drive up to the head of the race convoy.
Early in my time as a cycling journalist, I often traveled on the back of a race motorcycle, filling my notebook with race information while also working as a blackboard man. My most memorable gig was doing this double duty at the world road championships when they first came to Great Britain in 1970. The course was based on the Mallory Park motor racing circuit near Leicester, England. And my driver was the highly experienced Alf Buttler, with whom I’d ridden on races all over the country.
Doing the worlds was a big responsibility, of course, but it was also a personal thrill to be showing the blackboard to a field that included Tour de France winners Felice Gimondi and Eddy Merckx. At one point, a couple of 15km laps from the finish, Merckx whistled to Alf from the peloton, so we slowed down to give the Belgian superstar enough time to study the list of riders in a breakaway that had just formed. He saw that his Italian rival Gimondi was up there, but so was his talented young teammate Jean-Pierre Monseré — who was Belgium’s latest phenom, having won the Tour of Lombardy classic in his rookie season of 1969 — along with Leif Mortensen of Denmark, Charly Rouxel of France and Britain’s Les West.
Merckx could probably have jumped across to the break on the rolling course, but with star teammates such as Walter Godefroot, Frans Verbeeck, Roger De Vlaeminck and Herman Vanspringel still in the pack with him, he knew that his team had more than enough power to close the break down if they needed to. And he was confident that the 21-year-old Monseré had the talent to beat Gimondi and the others in the small breakaway group.
Both Alf and I were hoping that the “unknown” rider in that move, British national champ West, could surprise the others with one of his hallmark late attacks. We could see he was itching to try something, despite this being the longest race (272km) he’d ever ridden. We had the best seat in the house, shuttling between break and bunch, first showing the leaders the board, then stopping to take a time check with my stopwatch (this was long before GPS was invented!), writing the new information on the board before moving back alongside the riders in the peloton, and finally accelerating back to the break.
The leaders did stay away. West did make a late attack — but was caught in the final straight and came in fourth. And Monseré did win the final sprint to take the rainbow jersey, with Merckx coming home in 29th. (Monseré was expected to be one of cycling’s great classics riders, but the following spring, in a small Belgian race, he tragically died after a collision with a private car that had wandered onto the course.)
All of this happened long before radio communication first came to the peloton in the early 1990s and became ubiquitous by the early 2000s. Two-way communication between riders and their directors is regarded as essential by most teams, but the UCI management committee felt that the radios were taking away the element of surprise in racing, and that racers were simply following orders and losing the tactical expertise that had always been a key component of a winning rider’s arsenal.
A phased-in ban on race radios was started three years ago and led to an emotionally charged debate between the UCI and ProTeam directors through 2010 and much of 2011. Last September, the proposed complete ban on radio communication was put on hold until the end of 2012 as both sides of the argument are examined. The teams would like intra-team radio communication to be restored to all pro races, while the UCI wants them banned completely.
At present, radios are only permitted in UCI WorldTour races, including this coming week’s Paris-Nice. The team managers say that radios make the racing safer because they can warn riders instantly of any hazards on the road ahead. UCI management argues that racing is more predictable and less interesting when team directors pull the strings and riders stop thinking for themselves.
There may be a practical solution. Instead of just one blackboard man, major races could have two or even three such officials riding alongside the different groups. And rather than blackboards, they could carry iPad-type boards that could display warnings of upcoming road hazards along with the basic race updates.
Using such technology, the teams would know that their riders were not only getting the race information they needed, as Merckx and his teammates did at the 1970 worlds, but also learning of any safety concerns. Meanwhile, the UCI would know that riders were having to think for themselves again and not being treated like robots.
And all of us can get to see what happens in races this spring. Will the non-radio races, such as this coming Saturday’s Strade Bianche classic in Italy, be more exciting than the with-radio WorldTour events? Will the WorldTour races be safer because of radio communication? The debate is on … and maybe high-tech blackboards are the solution.
Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWilcockson
Grinta: the hidden ingredient of great racers
The Italian word grinta has become so prevalent in cycling journalism that a Dutch-language magazine in Belgium chose Grinta for its title. Translated, it means grit, spunk, bravery, or endurance. And when European sportswriters use the word to describe an underdog’s performance in cycling’s Heroic Era of the early 20th century, they are likely thinking of all four of those nouns.
They would certainly use grinta to describe how Eugène Christophe, when leading the 1913 Tour de France, broke his forks on the descent of the Tourmalet, walked more than 10km with the bike on his shoulder, crying all the way, to reach Ste. Marie-de-Campan, where he repaired the forks at the village blacksmith’s shop, and then, despite having lost a couple of hours, carried on riding over the Aubisque and Peyresourde climbs to Luchon — and still finished that Tour in seventh overall.
Journalists would use grinta to tell the story of Fausto Coppi’s winning the Cuneo to Pinerolo stage of the 1949 Giro d’Italia in a 192km-long solo breakaway over five mountain passes … or describe the heroism of Eddy Merckx at the 1975 Tour when he battled to second place overall after being punched in the liver on one stage and breaking his jaw on another … or relate how Lance Armstrong picked himself up after being floored at the foot of Luz-Ardiden, fighting back to the lead group and then charging clear to win the stage (with a cracked frame) to clinch the 2003 Tour yellow jersey.
So how does the latest generation of pro racers shape up to those cycling legends? Do they exhibit the same levels of grinta as their predecessors?
Take reigning world champion Mark Cavendish. The man with the flashy sprint certainly has to show grit and bravery in negotiating a risk-filled mass stage finish at the Tour or Giro. But his performance that impressed me the most was when he won (with Rob Hayles) the Madison title at the 2005 track worlds in Los Angeles.
The then teen-aged Cavendish was a last-minute replacement and had never teamed with the veteran Hayles before. They overcame their lack of competitive experience together with sheer class. The pair was impressively fast in lapping the field to take the lead with 28 laps to go — and even more impressive, Cav especially, in hanging with the pack as team after team launched attacks in the closing kilometers.
At the end of that high-speed 50km contest, Cav was in tears, not only from the thrill of becoming world champion at 19 but also from the pain of racing (and beating) the world’s best trackmen. That took grinta! In an emotion-tinged interview, the young Brit said that winning a rainbow jersey was “something I’ve been waiting for all my life.”
Another young racer who has displayed enormous amounts of grinta in his so-far brief career is Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway. He needed plenty of nerve on stage 7 of the 2009 Giro to join a breakaway on a treacherously wet (and cold!) alpine descent into Chiavenna, where he easily took the sprint. Even more impressive was his victory a month earlier at Ghent-Wevelgem.
Also on a cold, rainy and windy day, Boasson Hagen wasn’t supposed to win this rugged Belgian classic. His teammate Mark Cavendish was favored, but the Brit flatted just as the race split apart. Their team director Brian Holm told me he wasn’t expecting anything from the Norwegian. After all, he explained, it was only three days after a difficult Tour of Flanders, where Boasson Hagen “had diarrhea and had to stop to go to the toilet three times…. That must have taken something out of him.”
Despite that, Boasson Hagen got into the front group at Ghent-Wevelgem with two senior teammates, both former winners of this classic, George Hincapie and Marcus Burghardt. Still, no one was expecting anything from the 21-year-old Norwegian when on the final climb, the ruggedly steep, cobblestone Kemmelberg, he jumped away from the Hincapie group and bridged to lone leader Aleksandr Kuschynski of Belarus — and after pacing each other for the remaining 35km, Boasson Hagen led out the sprint from 300 meters to win easily.
Hincapie could have complained about an upstart colleague stealing the race, but realizing the scale of Boasson Hagen’s grinta, the American admiringly said, “It’s huge for Eddy … and it doesn’t get much tougher than today.”
Like Cavendish and Boasson Hagen, the Slovak phenom Peter Sagan has quickly established himself as a rider of immense talent and grit. Only two months into his pro career, at age 20, he shocked the cycling world by taking two stage wins at the 2010 Paris-Nice in bitterly cold weather — the first by out-sprinting a select group of six that included Spanish stars Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador; the second with a solo attack on a steep climb 2km from the finish.
A few weeks later at the prologue of Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie, I witnessed his ambition first-hand. Standing beyond the finish line, with no other reporters around, I was able to talk to riders as they circled back after finishing their time trials.
Sagan raced across the line head down, riding as hard as he could, and didn’t see what time he’d done. He said he understood a little English, so I indicated that he was one second slower than the fastest rider, Italy’s Marco Pinotti. Sagan knew enough English to react to his narrow loss with: “F–k! Only one second?” And the very next day, goaded by his prologue defeat, he proved the strongest sprinter, with the most grinta, in a wild bunch finish.
Like the legends of the past, modern stars Cavendish, Boasson Hagen and Sagan all have immense talent and, even more important, that indefinable gift called grinta.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Follow me on Twitter @johnwilcockson
I’d say he’s a few pounds heavier than when he stopped racing. The seventies were always an odd era, with flares and tank tops and silly sunglasses and long hair and Janssen is no less embarrassed about it than anyone else. He smiles wryly at a picture of himself looking like George Best. He ticks off riders like Robert Millar and Phil Anderson with their long hair now.
I forgot for a moment that he’d ever been world champion. He never mentioned it except in passing. I think it’s the Tour rather than the championship which holds the sweetest memories. Not surprising, really.
“The Tour is the biggest race, the most beautiful race you can win,” he said. But he won it at the last moment, as an afterthought. Surely, I asked, he’d rather have won with strength instead, instead of taking it on the final day without having once led the journey?
“But it was much more exciting that way, wasn’t it? We saw it when LeMond and Fignon decided it on the last day as well, with people crowding round the television or the radio, and the last day’s a sort of climax. And it was like that for me as well.
“And I don’t think I would have wanted to hold the yellow jersey longer. Right on the last day, nobody knew who would win the Tour, and that was my tactic. We had a team with three riders—Dolman, Beugels and Arie Den Hertog—and that was my team. And I was the fourth. I couldn’t do anything with a team that small, could I? The other riders had packed and gone home.
“So what could I do? I had to be very smart to win the Tour and the only chance was to do it in the time-trial.”
Two decades have passed, but those sensations that LeMond and Fignon must have known are still fresh to him. It took Janssen only a second to remember the gap between Bracke, van Springel and himself, and none at all to recall the number of seconds that put him in yellow.
It’s a back-to-front margin, to win the world’s biggest race with the smallest ever margin. And now he can’t even boast that.
“Records are made to be broken,” he said. “Ja.” He puffed again and stubbed out the remains.
“I was in Paris for LeMond and Fignon. I stood along the Champs Elysées. That’s not where we finished, of course, but it brought back the wonderful memories for me, that Tour de France. It has changed technically over the years, but the Tour is still the greatest sporting event in the world, and if you manage to win it, then you’ve achieved the most beautiful thing that the sport has to offer.”
It was the last year the Tour was public property. For the next four years it went to Eddy Merckx and the sport moved from a number of big-hitters to just one. I suggested that the game in Janssen’s era was more exciting. Not to my surprise, he agreed.
“I’ll go along with that. In my time, a lot of riders could have won. In the time of Merckx, Hinault, Coppi, it was a lot more predictable. You knew in advance who was going to win. Merckx was in the yellow jersey from the second day and the others couldn’t touch him. And for the public, the people who follow the sport on television and radio, that was less spectacular.
“When I rode the Tour, there were 10, 15 good riders. First one would win and then the next and then the next. But in the Merckx era, the Hinault era, the races were the same. So the public got fed up. Now, of course, there aren’t any big names such as Merckx. You’ve got very good riders, but…”
“Nobody as good as Jan Janssen?” I prompted.
“Who am I to say that?”
And then, as his son left to busy himself around the warehouse, I asked Janssen whether he had been born too soon, whether he would rather be his son’s age.
“It’s certainly changed now, that’s for sure. It’s more commercial, and the generation before me, van Est’s generation, they say it as well—we were born too early. There’s much more money to be earned.”
And that made it easier for him?
“Not easier. We had to be good all the time, from the first of February until the end of October. Because it was my duty to make the most of my sponsor’s name, to get publicity. I mean, there were other good riders in the team, but it was 80 per cent on my shoulders to get that publicity. And if you had an off-day, well, you were letting your sponsors down.”
So why, I wanted to know, is there more money now if in his own estimation the races aren’t so exciting?
“Because the whole sponsorship of the sport has taken off. It’s become so interesting to a company because a company that wants to get its name known, you can buy a good team, with good management, good public relations, and you can get all the big names.
“But it didn’t use to be like that, because the television in our time… Well; it was covered but not like now. Direct coverage for an hour and a half they have. Naturally, that is very interesting for the public.
“We got very good money, of course. And to be truthful, the French franc was worth a lot more than now. But I think the motivation has changed with the professionals as well. You get riders like Rooks and Theunisse saying after the Tour they’re stopping at home because they can’t be bothered with criteriums, and that’s not so attractive to the public. I don’t think you’re serving the sport doing that, because the more popular cycling is, the better it is for every one of the riders.
“It’s good that they’re well paid now, of course, but they have to give everything they’ve got. And now there are a load of riders who say ‘I only want to ride the classics in the spring and no Tour de France, no Giro d’Italia and no Tour of Spain, because it’s too hot there and there are too many mountains, and there’s this and there’s that.’
“And there are riders who say they’re not going to ride Paris–Roubaix over the bad roads, and no Tour of Flanders in the snow and rain. They pick and choose their races. Well, it didn’t use to be that way. You got a list of races from your team manager and you had to ride them.
“You can’t have a new Merckx or Hinault every couple of years, because people like that are rare, but what I would say is that the general level of top riders has gone down a bit. There are a number of good riders but no big-hitters any more. The whole sport has changed. They aren’t hungry any more. There’s so much money to earn now, even for a third-rate rider. Twenty-five years ago, a third-class rider didn’t get jam on his bread. So if they got 50 guilders for a criterium, they rode. But now every rider is well paid, so they don’t do so much for it. They say ‘Oh, I’ve got a good contract from the firm, I’m okay.’
“The hunger to ride well, to succeed and only then to earn money is over.”
He’s not bitter, I sense. Despairing perhaps, but realistic would be a better word. In 1967, by the way, Janssen nearly won the world championship for a second time. But he was, in two ways, just that little too late. To start with, he was half a wheel too late. But mainly, he had left it too late because he was now a mature man and with him was a youthful Eddy Merckx—just three years after the Belgian had won the world amateur race.
On the second lap at Heerlen, where Graham Webb and Beryl Burton had already won, there was an attack by Gianni Motta. So Merckx, the Spaniard Saez, and Holland’s van der Vleuten went with him. Merckx wrote later: “There was also an unknown Briton called Addy, who never took his turn and disappeared quickly.”
Bob Addy was a tall, home-based professional in the Holdsworth domestic team. How easily are one man’s dream moments dispelled!
Motta had been given excruciating distances to ride in training by a guru, half-doctor, half-svengali, and he was at that stage where fitness risked topping into exhaustion. Eventually guru De Donato would attract the attentions of the police, but for the moment he had Motta in peak condition.
You can judge how confident he felt by the fact that there were still 250 kilometers to go. The bunch wondered at his foolhardiness for a while; then, after the break had gained three minutes in 60 kilometers, began wondering again. There was a flurry of concern and the motorcycle blackboard man brought the news that Janssen had decided to chase.
That was bad news. Janssen was a brilliant sprinter—he beat Merckx on the line in Ghent–Wevelgem—and, what’s more, he’d proved in the Tour de France that he had the time-trialling ability to close a gap.
Motta turned to the blackboard man again and saw the numbers of the break, then a horizontal line with Janssen’s number below it. And, below Janssen, a large oval to indicate the bunch.
“Who’s with him?” Motta shouted. There were numbers missing, surely?
“Nobody,” the motorcyclist yelled back. “He’s by himself.”
The Italian turned to Merckx and called on him to work with him to stay away. Merckx wrote later in Eddy Merckx, Coureur Cycliste that Janssen was one of the few he considered “a true athlete.” But he wasn’t going to work to stop him.
Instead, he calculated that Janssen would be weakened by the chase but still strong enough to work to keep the group clear. More than that, the Dutch team—usually better organized than the Belgians, whom nobody could guarantee wouldn’t chase Merckx for their own purposes—would ease off if Janssen stood a chance. So too might anyone in Janssen’s circle interested in a contract for the following year. What’s more, van der Vleuten was already in the break.
In fact Peter Post did chase, but then equally Janssen did work with van der Vleuten. The Dutch figured that they alone had two in the break.
Before winning the amateur championship, according to a Dutch author, Merckx told his mother in Brussels that he would shake his legs on a downhill stretch to indicate that he felt fresh in the closing miles. He shook his legs and Mrs. Merckx was delighted. Young Eddy said later that he had done it because they were tired.
This time he remembered the wigging he got. As the bell rang for the last 13 kilometer lap, he winked at the television camera. It was the message to the folk back home.
But afterwards he admitted: “It looked confident but, frankly, I wasn’t that certain.”
Motta jumped on the last descent but failed. Janssen waited for the last 100 meters to sprint and Merckx leaped first. Through his arms, Merckx could see the Dutchman coming up on him inch by inch. Five meters before the line, he was alongside. Desperately, Merckx flung his bike forward beneath him and won by half a wheel.
Jan Janssen had to face his home crowd disappointed.
Les Woodland climbed aboard his old Carlton bike to take a nostalgia trip across Belgium and Holland to visit some of cycling’s greatest riders. Cycling Heroes: The Golden Years tells the story of that journey he took in the early 1990s and the time he spent with some of the finest riders from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Among those he visited were Rik van Steenbergen, Rik van Looy, Hennie Kuiper, Peter Post and the great Jan Janssen.
When Franco Bitossi was asked his impression of Jan Janssen, he was succinct: “Un artista della bicicletta, he could do what he wanted with his bike.”
Janssen’s palmarès is eloquent. Here are the high points:
1962 Championship of Zurich, 1964 World Pro Road Champion, 1964 Paris–Nice (GC and points), 1965 Tour of The Netherlands, 1964 and 1965 TDF points, 1966 Bordeaux– Paris, 2nd 1966 Tour de France, 1967 Paris–Roubaix, 1967 Vuelta a España (again GC and points), 1967 Super Prestige Pernod, 1968 Tour de France GC, plus a couple of 6-Days. He could beat you anywhere, any time, single-day, stage race or track.
Here’s Les’ telling of his visit with Jan Janssen from Cycling Heroes: The Golden Years.—Bill McGann
JAN JANSSEN (1940– )
I never sensed I’d have difficulty with Jan Janssen. It’s funny how much you go by appearances. I remembered this open-faced chap who never looked angry but always wore sunglasses. You never saw him quoted as saying very much, but then that was probably because most cycling reporters were French and Belgian and Janssen was one of the few Dutchmen.
The French must have felt odd about him, anyway, because he made such a point of riding in French teams. He won for them, but he also kept good honest Frenchmen out of the limelight. That is difficult to resolve in France.
He wasn’t at home when I rang. His wife answered and said he’d be in Germany when I suggested visiting, but he’d be back if I could leave it to the afternoon. He’d be delighted to see me. I thought my judgments about him were coming true.
I knew Putte because it was where I went for my supermarket shopping when I lived in a neighboring village. The border runs through the middle, so south of what used to be the customs check and lorry park you’ll see a mishmash of pubs, shops and houses, and on the northern end the buildings have the eerie conformity of Holland.
Town planning is something that came late to Belgium, but it suits both nations’ characters to have things as they are—the happy-go-lucky, haphazard Belgians and the more worrying, better organized Dutch. The last pro race of the lowland season, the Sluitingsprijs, is in the southern half. You’ll see the village listed as Putte-Kapellen, which is what the Belgians call it. There’s no race at the Dutch end but when they have a carnival, the fun fair takes over the whole village.
I rode through what remained of Belgium through sandy heaths and small villages as far as Kalmthout. I rode a circuit past my old house for old time’s sake and noted that the current residents are better gardeners than I ever was. Then I turned down through a little place called Heide to cross into Holland. Only a change in car number plates gave the border away.
I reached Putte alongside the Wip Er In sex shops (“Pop in”, it means, but it looks better in Dutch), turned right past one of the ubiquitous Albert Heijn supermarkets, and rode up through the herring stalls, poffertje makers (a small sweet pancake) and on to a road on the right called Postlaan. And there, several hundred yards on the left, is the factory where Jan Janssen makes bikes. He’s parted with the company since my visit, but that’s all that’s changed since he won the Tour de France. He looks barely different. And until Greg LeMond’s tussle with Laurent Fignon in Paris in 1989, this trim, bespectacled, blond-haired Dutchman held the record for the closest victory of all.
Jan Janssen moved to Putte at the start of 1969, from Ossendrecht further up the road. His baby, also Jan, had just been born. Jan Janssen is the equivalent of John Smith in England or Paddy Murphy in Ireland. His house is called Mon Repos, recognizing that Janssen was always the most French of the Dutch riders—Pelforth, Bic, all French.
In 1968, it was surprising that he was having lunch at Melun. There was nearly no Tour de France at all that year. The Americans were bombing Saigon, Martin Luther King was shot dead and President De Gaulle flew home from an interrupted tour of Romania to deal with student rioting on the streets of Paris.
That riot, one of several around the world as young people struggled against their governments, were against the central and stifling authority of the French state, which controlled not just the radio and television stations but much else that could encourage progressive thinking. Cobble stones flew and the dead and injured were transferred hourly to hospital by the dozen.
For a while it seemed all France might flare up. There were secondary riots in provincial towns of what was then the most centralized of states. And the greatest symbol outside the government of the Old Way, the traditional of the mighty against the freethinking, was the Tour de France—“that gaudy monument to capitalism,” as the communist L’Humanité called it.
Astonishingly, the riots stopped to allow the peloton to pass. And then they resumed.
At Melun, just before Paris, Janssen was 16 seconds back from Herman van Springel, the maillot jaune. He, Janssen and another Belgian, Ferdi Bracke, were all within three minutes. Just the time-trial into the capital remained. Bracke, a man capable of the world hour record, should have won. But the Gray Eminence, so called because of his prematurely lightened hair, tended to stage fright, flopping on the big occasion. Success wasn’t predictable. By contrast Janssen had the calmness of Dutch tradition. A nation saved by a small boy’s finger in a sea wall (an American story, incidentally, little known in Holland) doesn’t panic at a 30-mile time trial.
Janssen was one of the last three to start. The also-rans were showered and changed in Paris and had returned in their suits or tracksuits to watch the play-off of the biggest drama the postwar Tour had known.
It took 54,600 meters to make the decision. At the end, Janssen had 54 seconds on van Springel, still more on Bracke. He had won the Tour de France. That final yellow jersey was the only one he had worn. His 38 seconds were the smallest winning margin until Greg LeMond.
Even so, Janssen was a winner whom Geoffrey Nicholson called among “the more forgettable”, along with Lucien Aimar and Roger Pingeon. But Nicholson, a fair judge of men, was comparing him to Anquetil. And certainly, if the manner of his success was not crushing in the way of Anquetil or Coppi, then at least he left the race in suspense and not the foregone conclusion that so often visited it when Eddy Merckx or Miguel Indurain was riding.
It also began a happy sequence in which, every 21 years, the Tour put on a show. In 1947, no bookmakers would take bets on Pierre Brambilla winning, so secure were his chances on the last day. More than that, tradition demanded the maillot jaune was allowed his glory, undisturbed by petty attacks. But under his nose, the Breton Jean Robic—“like a little old man in glasses with a helmet like half a dozen sausages on his head”—bobbed off on a hill out of Rouen and got enough of a lead to stand on the uppermost level of the podium at the finish.
Twenty-one years after Janssen also won on the last day, LeMond fitted his aerodynamic tribars to ride to Paris and beat Fignon.
But for Janssen even those memories aren’t enough. Nor is his rainbow jersey from 1964, won by beating Vittorio Adorni and Raymond Poulidor in a sprint at Sallanches. There is sadness in his voice. “In 1969, I said I shall ride for another three or four years at most.” He was 29 then. “I want to quit when I’m on top. It will never be a question of my giving up when I can no longer hang on. I know when to call it a day.”
There is sadness because that day came more quickly than he believed. Maybe he told me this because he was tired from the journey back from Germany, or maybe he just felt it anyway. But he said it all the same.
“To be honest, I had no more ambitions. It was all traveling, racing, and the results weren’t as good any more. And the older you are, the more you have to prepare—train further, train more, look after yourself more, and I couldn’t face all that.
“And then in ’71, I was already doing a bit less—criteriums, smaller races, no Tour de France, which I found a bitter blow—and then, ja, I decided to give up. I was just another of the hundred or so nameless riders in the peloton. And then one day I was in the Tour of Luxembourg, in 1972, and I heard on the radio from one of the motorbike marshals: ‘Winner of the stage…’ I forget the name now…‘With the peloton at 15 minutes, with Jan Janssen’ and so on. And I can’t tell you what a blow that was. Jan Janssen, at 15 minutes? Winner of the Tour de France, former world champion, winner of Paris–Roubaix, winner of Paris–Nice, all the big races? That couldn’t be. And there and then I decided to do a couple more and then hup, I was done.”
We sat in the small works canteen next to the workshop. Staff came and went, among them his teenage son, who races in the black and white stripes of the Zuidwest Hoek club (“southwest corner”) in Bergen-op-Zoom. The three of us laughed and chatted for a moment and spoke of mutual friends. Janssen puffed on a cigarette, just as he did when he was racing. It’s only away from the European mainland that cycling was seen as a route to health; on the Continent it has never been more than a route to money. Janssen smokes, van Est smokes, and Eddy Merckx made an income advertising packets of Belga.
Janssen confessed it must be difficult for his son, a young bike rider with a famous father. But while Janssen zoon might try to overlook his father, Janssen papa likes being recognized. Not bigheaded, really, but he likes being recognized as Jan Janssen when he goes out with the trimmers, the keep-fit riders. He turns up on television around Tour de France time and the bike on which he rode from Melun to Paris is now part of a traveling show—he uses the English word.
The Tour’s current status as a wealthy, far-reaching business enterprise that is the heart of the professional racing calender is huge reversal of fortune. There are teams who argue that without a trip to the Tour their sponsors will abandon them. It wasn’t always so. In the 1970s there was talk that because of its precarious financial position, the Tour might have to be nationalized and teams sometimes had to be begged to enter the Tour. Félix Lévitan, who was then responsible for the financial side of the Tour, used many small sponsors to pay the Tour’s expenses. Prizes were sometimes in kind rather than cash. At one point there were twelve classifications the riders could compete for and the awards ceremonies were endless. It was all a bit tawdry. In the 1990s Jean-Marie Leblanc cut the number of sponsors in order to make the race “comprehensible”. The result was a gusher of money for the Tour and its current prosperity. In spite of this fabulous success, there is reason to be concerned.
The question of the Tour’s importance, cost and relevance is one Les Woodland dealt with in the concluding chapter of Tourmen: The Men Who Made the Tour de France.—Bill McGann
The most serious of Sunday papers is Le Journal du Dimanche, which means “The Sunday Paper.” It began, like L’Équipe, after the war. Since then its analytical approach has earned it a place in serious-thinking France. Its opinion surveys are conducted by Ifop, the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique, founded after a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris met the pollster George Gallup in the USA. Ifop has become the heavyweight of French polling organizations and its assessments of politicians and policies are taken seriously. This underlines the worth of the survey in 2007, for the Journal du Dimanche, of how the French view their Tour. And the French, it seemed, line the road with few illusions. The paper summarized: “78 percent of them doubt the honesty of a victory, whether it’s in the Tour de France or any other race.”
Do you, personally, like the Tour de France?
|Total (%)||Men (%)||Women (%)|
Today, when a rider wins a stage of the Tour de France or another cycling race, do you doubt the honesty of the victory?
Which of these opinions fits you better?
|The fight against doping in cycling should be conducted even more severely and cheats should be excluded from races, even if they are stars||80|
|Doping is now widespread in cycling; that should be recognized and it should be handled medically||19|
The Journal du Dimanche said the worry was that “only 36 percent of those younger than 35 say they like the Tour; it is older people who have kept their affection: 64 percent of those older than 50, 70 percent of those aged more than 65. Probably because this generation grew interested before the era of suspicion, whether it was individual (Pedro Delgado, contested winner in 1988) or generalized (starting with the Festina affair in 1998). Perhaps, too, because you have to go back two decades to find the last French riders in yellow in Paris, Laurent Fignon (1983) and Bernard Hinault (1985).”
Why? What does this mean? What else is there?
• • •
Graeme Fife spoke of divisions of cycle racing: “The men who concentrate on the Tour and nothing else and the real pros who honor the tradition of the sport.” The last great stars to ride a whole season, with heart as well as legs, were Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. The first not to, he reckoned, was Greg LeMond. And he was speaking before Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and others.
The result of specialization parallels Mario Cipollini. He rode a seven-day Tour when everyone else rode a month. Those who concentrate on the Tour ride the same race but a different season. They hardly start from the same place. More than that, they force others to do the same, for there’s no point in starting if you don’t hope to win or have your leader win. The result is that even classics are becoming preparation for the Tour. And more and more specialists aren’t riding those either.
The specialization rumbles more disastrously further down. The classics and Tours make up the visible part of the year. It would be disastrous if the classics lost their luster. But padding out the calendar and therefore the living of professionals in general are the little races, the Tours of this-that-and-the-other put on by clubs which every year scrape together the money. The more the stars, the more easily can be collected the money. But there are standing costs and a minimum prize list and so the price doesn’t fall proportionately with the quality of the field. When sponsors lose interest in minnows, they keep their money in their wallet or choose another sport.
In France, the best of the rest are banded into a season-long competition called the Coupe de France. The hope is to create excitement and maintain interest. But, for all that the races are open to everyone, the field is almost all French with a handful from across the border if the race is near Belgium and a sprinkling of foreigners obliged to ride because they are in French teams. They are good races but…who cares?
Some of it is that no French rider has won the Tour de France in decades. The last was Bernard Hinault in 1986, ending a period in which Frenchmen won 20 of the 39 Tours since the war. An immediate fall from a success rate of almost 50 percent to exactly zero doesn’t go unquestioned. And France asks the question over and over.
If you’re not French, of course, it doesn’t matter. You don’t notice it. But there are concerns for all. The more Americans have won the Tour, the more the sport has succeeded in America. Belgium never had more new riders than when Eddy Merckx won five Tours. Even Britain, never better than fourth, was wonderfully happy when it happened, and its success on the track—including what one French commentator called un holdup at the Olympics—turned the British Cycling Federation from a damp rag to an organization with more members than ever.
Success breeds success. And defeat encourages defeat. Hinault’s club in Yffiniac, brimming in his day, has half a dozen members now. Jacques Anquetil’s club at Sotteville, across the river from Rouen, all but vanished when he vanished. French cycling is in a dreadful state. And while we may not know the reason, the consequences could be worrying.
The Tour takes place on public roads. It is subsidized at public expense. It pays for police to escort it but there is local expense as towns and cities lay on start and finish lines. There is no guarantee they will make a profit and, when they do, it can only be guessed how much business the race has brought. Along the way, a hundred communities a day are disrupted by having their thoroughfare closed, access to shops and bars and filling stations with it, not just while the riders pass but for hours before it. People can’t get in and out of where they live. Nobody can drive across what becomes a wall across the country, moving on a little each day. It’s all very well knowing that Gaston in the village bar is selling more beer than usual but that counts little when you’re stopped from your daily life without recompense.
On Mont Ventoux, taxpayers pay to have eight tons of litter shifted every summer, most, says the mayor, from cyclists and their followers. The Tour is an expense to many more towns and communes than it is a profit for others. Sponsorship may cover the main costs but they overlook all the incidental ones: the disruption, litter, damage, loss of trade, minor road improvements, signposting of road closures, expenses for planning meetings, medical care and much else.
The crowds for the Tour grow year by year, sometimes dropping, always making up what they lost. Nobody knows for sure because they can’t be counted—claims for places like the Alpe d’Huez are preposterous because there just isn’t that much room beside the road—but nobody denies they are a lot. The crowds turn the Tour into a national occasion, a month-long street party. But…
What happens when a politician questions, as one will, what right the sport has to clog up the roads of France in summer when only foreigners win? The logic isn’t complete but the sentiment appeals. And it appeals to the many, as the Journal du Dimanche’s survey showed, who have no interest in the Tour. For the moment nobody has said it. But it would take only an analysis of the cost of disruption to start the questioning.
To question the Tour would be politically risky. Not everyone in France is a Tour fan—most are no more than generally interested—but there are enough that they’re best left unprovoked when votes are at stake. To call off the Tour, therefore, is improbable. But what would it take for the government to say “Gentlemen, we lend you the roads of France at the expense of the French, but we get little back in national pride. You run a commercial company and you exist to make a profit. Perhaps the time has come to give back to France some of what it has given you. You can’t, we know, guarantee a French winner. But let’s say that we will give you the roads again each summer if you at least give us a French team. Please, go away, do what Henri Desgrange did in 1930 and give us something to cheer for.”
Old Dezzie must be chuckling in his slumber.
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
And we thought we’d seen surprising riding.
To this point in my life, today’s stage 18 is the single most thrilling single stage of what has already been the single most surprising and dramatic Tour de France in memory.
Lest anyone have harbored any doubts that this was the most exciting and unpredictable Tour de France in a generation, today served as the incontrovertible evidence that we haven’t seen a Tour this wide-open since most of the audience started school. To quantify the number of variables still in play that could determine the final podium of the Tour de France hardly seems possible. I’ll put it in perspective this way: Were this a Hollywood script, the Schleck brothers would be condensed into a single character and Basso and Cunego would have been written out of the storyline in the Pyrenees, along with Contador. Voeckler, Evans and just one Schleck is about the maximum that the average Hollywood script doctor will accept. Tinseltown prefers its conflicts binary, just like football.
Those many storylines are what make stage 18 superior to Greg LeMond’s victory in the final time trial of the ’89 Tour de France (or any other stage of that year’s Tour), Floyd Landis’ reversal-of-fortune ride to Morzine, dare I say, even Lance Armstrong’s 2003 win atop Luz Ardiden on a broken bike.
Armstrong went into that stage with only 15 seconds on Jan Ullrich and 18 seconds on Alexandre Vinokourov. However, The Euskaltel duo of Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo were more than four minutes back and guaranteed to lose boatloads of time in the final time trial, so everyone watching knew there were only three guys who could win the Tour.
Going into today’s stage less than four minutes separated the top eight on GC. By this point in the race, we don’t ordinarily have so many riders seemingly in contention.
Here was the GC this morning before the start:
|Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar||
|Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team||
|Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||
|Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||
|Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi||
|Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard||
|Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre – ISD||
|Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale||
|Tom Danielson (USA) Team Garmin-Cervelo||
|Rigoberto Uran (Col) Sky Procycling||
Of the top eight, only Cunego and Basso really had ceased to be spoken of with the reverent tones reserved for potential victors. Each of the top six were a storyline unto themselves. Voeckler was defying the odds. Evans was riding like a potential winner. Fränk Schleck was the one of Leopard-Trek’s one-two punch. Brother Andy was the whiny but gifted climber who made the threat of his brother so dangerous. Sammy Sanchez was strong, courageous, unpredictable and … willing to work for Contador. And Contador, though he seemed not to be his usual self, was still too strong to be disregarded.
The younger Schleck’s attack may have worked for one simple reason: Contador didn’t have the legs to respond. Had he been stronger, it seems likely he wouldn’t have allowed last year’s bridesmaid to ride up the road, so strong is the rivalry between the two. Following his terrible descending in the rain on stage 15, Schleck did a fair drop down the Col d’Izoard on his way to catching teammate Maxime Monfort; that alone made his attack redemptive.
For years, the GC race at the Tour has been derided because the players wait for the final climb and then attack with everything they have. At last, with Schleck’s attack, we saw an act of courage, where in his own words he was “all in.” Schleck even admitted that the ride could have gone either way
We’ve entered an era where the afterburner attacks must be used rarely and late in the stage, if at all. The question of what we’re left with as options was answered less by Schleck than the old fox, Francesco Moser, who we are told spent some time with the brothers last night. Though Moser never triumphed at the Tour, he knows a thing or two about wily victories.
Can we give Moser some sort of prize for helping to animate the race? In truth, he did little more than remind the Schlecks of how Grand Tours were won during the age of Merckx. Tonight, all the contenders will go to bed seeing this race with new eyes.
It took guts and determination for Evans to tow the shrinking peloton the way he did. It’s an inglorious path to victory, but he has proven he won’t go surrender to anyone. And for those who wonder why he allowed Andy to ride up the road, when he was clearly such a threat, it was the smartest thing he could do with brother Fränk sitting on his wheel. A counterattack by Fränk could have destroyed Evans’ ambitions, which are only currently wounded.
Both Voeckler and Contador have conceded defeat, the latter just this afternoon, the former every day since he donned the jersey. What’s comical here is how we have every reason to believe Contador and zero reason to believe Voeckler. Never in the Tour de France has a rider spoken more derisively of his chances while riding with such determined ferocity. He’s not giving up and the only thing coming out of his mouth that we can trust is carbon dioxide.
Perhaps the most mysterious ride of the day was delivered by Voeckler’s teammate, Pierre Rolland. As the one teammate left in the lead group on the Galibier, he would have been an obvious choice to help Evans with pace making. Based on his one trip to the front, it seemed that he didn’t have the horsepower to help much, but I suspect there was an additional force at work. Should an additional attack have come (that one didn’t says a lot about how infernal Evans’ pace was), Rolland was there to help pace Voeckler back to the leaders. He was the proverbial ace up the sleeve, as proven by the fact that he finished sixth on the stage.
Only 1:12 separates four riders with a classic Alpine stage to go. Unfortunately for Thomas Voeckler, even if he doesn’t lose a second to either Schleck on l’Alpe d’Huez, he is likely to lose at least a minute to Andy in the time trial. Last year Voeckler—with no pride or classification on the line—gave up almost three minutes to Schleck in the final, 52km, ITT. Even if he rides out of his skin on this 41km test, preserving his lead seems unlikely.
That’s a shame. A spot on the podium is an inadequate reward for Voeckler’s revelatory ride, his tenacity, his poker, his leap of faith in himself.
But the real man of the day is Andy Schleck, who presented himself to us today as a man of real courage, a man of daring. Of course, Schleck’s daring is minor when compared to what Contador attempted. If Alberto-freakin’-Contador can’t pull off the Giro-Tour double at the age of 28, with six consecutive Grand Tour wins under his belt, then I say we are unlikely to see it accomplished again. Armstrong knew not to attempt such a sweep. Will this chasten Contador from trying again? And what does this spell for his relationship with Riis?
With three days to go, only one thing seems certain: Whoever stands atop the podium in Paris will have earned our respect on their way to a deserved win.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The first week of the 2011 Tour de France has been full of nothing so much as surprises. From Alberto Contador’s time loss to the other favorites to the fact that Tom Danielson is the best-placed rider on Garmin-Cervelo to just how long teammate and sprinter Thor Hushovd actually held on to the race leader’s maillot jaune, the week can best be described as something we wouldn’t have guessed.
There’s been loads of talk and hand-wringing about the incredible number of crashes at this year’s Tour. It’s impossible to quantify each crash and the injuries suffered and compare them and their severity to previous years, but we do have the advantage of one truly objective measure: DNFs.
I spent a little while this afternoon (in between trips to the bathroom—I’ve been sick enough to be short on creative energy) [UPDATE: Apparently I was sick enough that I didn't stop to consider the number of starters in between said trips. I've overhauled my analysis based on a reconsideration. This is what you get when a blogger ought to be confined to the couch and the remote. Sorry.] checking previous editions of the Tour for abandons and DNSs. In the last ten years (I’m going to confine this analysis to a jury of peers), by stage 9, the average number of abandons was 13.9. The Tour has suffered 18 abandons this year, tied for the second highest (2007 also had 18 abandons) in the last 10 years. That said, 2003 was a very rough year, with 26 abandons; three of those were riders with GC hopes: Joseba Beloki, Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer. The reason for the high number of abandons that year had less to do with crashes than the fact that the race already had two brutal days in the mountains.
This analysis does suffer a bit of a wrinkle. Most of these years began with a prologue, the upshot being stage 9 fell on the day following the first rest day. Rather than stick with the actual number of days raced, I chose to go with the number of stages because it results in a truer equivalence of days raced in the peloton. Bottom line: The perception that there are a lot of abandons, more than usual.
Have the crashes been worse? It’s hard to make a case for that, with the exception of the way Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) were taken out by the car from French network 23. It was a piece of driving I’d have expected from some rookie hailing from a cycling backwater, such as Morocco, not from the network of record for le Tour. It’s tantamount to a 168-year-old newspaper getting shut down for hacking into cell phones and deleting voicemails of murder victims. Nevermind. Some stuff you just don’t do.
I told the TV, “I didn’t just see that.”
Where were we? Oh yeah, those numerous crashes.
Only four of the pre-race favorites are out: Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Chris Horner (Radio Shack) and Bradley Wiggins (Sky). All things considered, it could be worse. I’m going to go out on a short limb and assert that of these four riders VDB was the only one with any real shot at the podium. Wiggins had zero shot. Zero. The only Criterium du Dauphiné winners who go onto the podium at the Tour de France are previous Tour winners. It’s happened four times in the last 20 years and their names were Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong—two apiece. Alberto Contador has yet to do it. At best, statistically speaking, Wiggins had a shot at fourth.
What of the abandon of Tom Boonen? It’s unfortunate, to be sure, but a complete non-event. Boonen was riding anonymously as his 50th place overall in the points competition indicates. KOM leader Hoogerland had more than double the number of sprint points Boonen collected.
Crashes are an inevitable, if unfortunate, reality of professional racing. That the peloton slowed to let favorites rejoin following one of the crashes during stage 9 was, I thought, an act of pure class. No one wants to see a competitor beaten at the Tour due to sheer bad luck. At Paris-Roubaix? Sure; that race is all about how the dice rolls, but the Tour is meant to be a test of a racer’s mettle, not his ability to dodge crashes for three weeks.
What’s seems most surprising is how Contador has thus far turned in Lance Armstrong’s 2010 performance. It’s hard to make a case that his head is fully in the game to this point in the race. Yes, he’s been there on occasion, which is better than we can really say of Armstrong’s performance last year. That descent into forgettability was a comedic re-take of Eddy Merckx’ 1977 ride to sixth place at le Grand Boucle, a failure people have often said tarnished Merckx’ legacy. And we know Armstrong didn’t get anything like sixth.
Contador lies in 16th place overall and with more than 1:30 to make up on Cadel Evans, Frank Schleck and brother Andy Schleck. It’s a tall order, and while history shows that Contador won the 2009 Tour by 4:11, he didn’t do it with a Giro win in his legs. There is reason to think that this year’s performance may bear more in common with last year’s performance given that A) Contador lacked some of his famous acceleration last year following his second place at the Critérium du Dauphiné and B) has yet to dump anyone on a climb this year.
My money is on someone named Schleck. It’s a bit like betting black, but I think the brothers will probably figure out that they can’t both win, which should give them the necessary ruthlessness to send one up the road while they hang the other around Evans’ neck, the albatross he can’t get rid of.
Literally, the only thing in this race that shouldn’t surprise us is the way Philippe Gilbert is kicking large-scale ass.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
For the record, here are the numbers of riders that abandoned by the end of stage 9 for each of the last 10 years—
2011: 18 (198 starters, 180 still in the race)
2010: 16 (197 starters, 181 still in the race)
2009: 9 (180 starters, 171 still in the race)
2008: 9 (179 starters, 170 still in the race)
2007: 18 (189 starters, 171 still in the race)
2006: 6 (176 starters, 170 still in the race)
2005: 14 (189 starters, 175 still in the race)
2004: 16 (188 starters, 172 still in the race)
2003: 26 (198 starters, 172 still in the race)
2002: 7 (189 starters, 182 still in the race)