There are as many reasons for wins as there are riders in the peloton. It’s rare that you can look at a win and pinpoint the exact reason behind it, beyond that of hard work. Thomas Voekler’s win in the fifth stage of the Tour de France is one rare occasion where the cause is obvious as bump in Michael Jackson’s record sales.
Sure, Voekler of Bbox Bouygues Telecom had to drop breakaway companions Anthony Geslin and Yauheni Hutarovich (Francaise des Jeux), Marcin Sapa (Lampre), Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha) and Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano), but that’s not why he won.
He won because 19 teams said, ‘We’re not chasing.’
It’s an odd day when 19 teams decide not to work hard enough to bring a breakaway back. You can’t say they didn’t work, but we all know there’s a big difference between walking the halls and playing warden to the escapees’ convict. And riding tempo for a whole stage is a tantamount to buying a lottery ticket and refusing to look at it.
But what could cause so many teams to unite? Aside from almost nothing, believing someone else will eat the fish you just hooked might do it. It’s interesting to note that the rider’s union is notorious for being perhaps the weakest in professional sports. It’s not really a distinction you want, so seeing something unite such an easily fractured bunch is memorable.
Columbia-HTC brought them together. Now, this was no kumbaya-singing-‘round-the-campfire fellowship. No, this was a genuine Us vs. Them. The question on the minds of 19 teams was, ‘Why should we work to bring a breakaway back if the net result will be us getting beaten in the sprint by Mark Cavendish?’
It seems that Cav’s two consecutive wins inspired a case of mass ennui powerful enough to allow a breakaway to stay away and take the stage, ensuring yet another day of no victory for 15 teams.
Mark Cavendish certainly isn’t the first rider to win back-to-back stages of the Tour de France. After all, Mario Cipollini won four stages in a row in 1999. Those wins came on the heels of Tom Steels taking two stages. If the peloton had ideas the way it did today, we’ll never know; the next day was the Metz time trial, which Armstrong put his name on. As a side note, the 1999 Tour de France is significant in modern Tour history because only 12 men won stages. Four riders accounted for all but six stage wins. Ouch.
Then, in 2004, Lance Armstrong won five stages in seven days, including three in a row. And yet the peloton didn’t give up. Why? Well, for one, the stages Armstrong scored could only have been won by a select few riders. For the average Tour rider, those stages were already beyond reach and Armstrong’s supremacy was a known fact.
But something is different with Cav. Something about him seems unstoppable and in the world of sprinting, that impression is distasteful and unusual, if not entirely foreign.
But what if those teams had really turned on the steam and brought the breakaway back, say with 5km to go? What then? We would have been cheated out of seeing Voekler drop his companions and put his head down.
Flat Tour de France stages are a special the way bachelor parties are special. For most riders, such an opportunity to break loose comes along maybe once per year, much like friends getting married. It’s a legendary day, full of efforts you really wouldn’t want to repeat on a daily basis. They make for great memories, even if the big prize isn’t yours.
But winning one is like the wedding. For the average rider, this chance may only come once in a lifetime. You’ve done everything right and now all eyes are on you making good on your promise to work hard.
What I saw in Voekler’s salute echoed that feeling, that the kisses he blew were a thanks to the crowd for their support, an acknowledgement that his place in such a grand spectacle was ordinarily very small and he was grateful to have a chance to be on stage.
For most of us dyed-in-the-wool roadies, we devote a little time each week to explaining our cyclophilia to coworkers, family, head shrinkers and the occasional careless driver. Making sense of our lives to those who don’t share our love of the bicycle is difficult with the most sympathetic audience. It’s not unlike explaining a V8 engine to a dog.
But each year we get a shot at opening a window into the excitement most of us feel each and every day. When the Tour de France gets underway this year, all of America will tune in ever so slightly to find out if an American will break his own record. You and I know there are more reasons than that to make the race worth following, but if it’s a chance to hook another fan, so be it.
But catching a new fan isn’t as simple as setting the hook. Think back on the first Tour de France you followed, either in the paper, on TV or the Internet. Each of us stumbled over certain givens of bicycle racing: Teams compete, but one guy wins. There are no timeouts, no matter how bad the crash. You eat on the field. The hero today is likely the zero tomorrow.
By the time you explain all this to your mom, boss, admin or spouse, their eyes have taken that glassy sheen common to supermodels and frogs.
Enter J.P. Partland’s book Tour Fever. If there’s a better book on cycling for the non-cyclist, it must be written in a different language. He imparts with ease the particulars of the race, Anglo-centric Tour history, bike technology, insights into viewing the race and more.
As it’s a small and short volume, it’s a quick read, but be forewarned. If you fancy yourself a Tour aficionado, brush up on your facts if you gift this book to someone. It’s packed with details on the sprinter’s competition, how KOM points are tallied, not to mention the top three finishers from each year of the Tour going back to its start in 1903. There is an excellent glossary to brush up on terminology in case someone tries to stump you.
What I’m getting around to is how you ought to have a copy of the book for yourself. It makes a great reference text, the perfect tool to brush up on data during commercials. J.P. has done a remarkable job. I’m thinking of ordering a stack of them to give to my few non-cycling friends and family. One of two things is likely to happen: I’ll either find myself talking to a convert by the middle of next month, or they’ll never ask another silly question about cycling again. A win, either way you look at it.
In the early 1990s the cycling world rumbled with displeasure at the incredible success of mountain biker Juli Furtado and road racer Lance Armstrong. Furtado went a whole season undefeated until she DNF’d at the World Championships. Armstrong wasn’t winning everything in sight, but his shockingly successful season, culminating with a solo win at World’s had folks worried that he might corner the market on the V.
Every few years a rider comes along who initially stuns us with their brilliance. We revel in the miracle of their skill and bravado. We celebrate them as the newest confection at the candy shop, our latest favorite. Lance Armstrong’s 1999 Tour de France victory remade him for us. He was as fresh as a newly picked strawberry. The second harvest and even the third were just as delectable.
But invariably, we tire of the new flavor. My personal stomach upset came with Miguel Indurain’s fourth victory in the Tour de France. He was precise. He was consistent. He displayed nothing so much as data. I felt like I was watching a clock tick for all the emotion he betrayed.
On group rides talk of Armstrong has turned sour. While he still has some fans; my informal tally of what I hear is that most riders not only don’t want to see him win another Tour de France, they don’t even want to see him play his own card; support Contador or go home seems to be the dominant theme.
Judging from the comments here on RKP, Cavendish’s two successive stage wins threaten to cast him with the same distasteful brand of dominance that caused us to turn on Furtado, twice on Armstrong and Indurain; before them there were others we turned on, but it has been long enough that most are too young or too old to remember how we tired of Eddy Merckx’s unwillingness to leave behind table scraps.
The problem with a dominant rider isn’t success per se, it’s political. The rider who wins too much becomes a tyrant. We may not be socialists, but our sense of what is fair is that no one wins in straight sets day after day.
So what if Cavendish were to sense our reluctance to celebrate his brilliance and deliberately botch a sprint. As unlikely as that scenario is, we’d disdain him even more for not giving his best; the only thing worse than a gift used too much is a gift poorly used.
I like the bravado that comes with Cavendish. Clearly Columbia has developed the most effective leadout train since Cipollini’s; yes, I think they do a better job than Petacchi’s teams did. When he compared his competitors to juniors, it was a refreshing bit of smack-talk. Thems fightin’ words!
I do have one issue with Cavendish. He wins so much he seems to think he needs to keep changing his victory salutes to keep them fresh, or different, or something. As a result, they end up looking contrived. I get that Columbia-HTC has a new sponsor (the aforementioned HTC). What’s more: I get that HTC makes phones. What I don’t get is the need to remind us with a silly I’m-making-a-call victory salute. One might wonder if he was just phoning his victory in.
We love a true champion. And I’m willing to follow Cavendish as he takes stage win after stage win. I hope in the high mountains we get occasional glimpses of him suffering as he does what’s necessary to earn that green jersey he is wearing. But if I could ask for one thing from him, it wouldn’t be to win less, it would be to drop the predetermined victory salutes. Forethought is to passion what math is to art.
Cav, if you want to keep me, keep the rest of us as fans, show us how you really feel when you win. Drop the artifice and give us a guy who is just as thrilled to win this as he was his first race as a junior.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.
I’ve been watching the Tour de France for a fair number of years. I’m still a student of the race and love to watch any film and video I run across. In my memory, relative to their years, the three best sprinters I’ve seen were Alessandro Petacchi, Mario Cipollini and Jean-Paul van Poppel.
I’m aware that Erik Zabel tops these guys for the sheer number of green jerseys he won, but he didn’t have the acceleration Petacchi, Cipollin and van Poppel had.
That’s what separated them from the garden-variety, faster-than-a-speeding-Ferrari sprinter—their stunning acceleration. From helicopter shots you could see the pedal stroke in which they unleashed their full power, as incandescent as the light that comes with a switch. In two pedal strokes you could see their relationship change to the riders around them; they simply gained more ground.
One of my favorite shots of all time was of a head-on finish from the ’87 Tour in which van Poppel in his Superconfex-Yoko jersey has taken the V. and has four of the race’s finest sprinters lined up, at least a length behind him. Outclassed is, I think, the technical term. It’s easy, in these more cynical times to wonder if maybe he was on something, but my speculation ends at the idea that his competitors were almost certainly on whatever he was on. Move along, nothing to see here.
At their absolute best, Cipollini and Petacchi both could drop riders during a sprint; Petacchi once dropped Cipo. But in each of the examples I can think of, Petacchi and Cipo gapped guys who … well most of us never thought they were up to the task.
In Stage 2 of the 2009 Tour de France we got a rare look. We saw the man who is arguably the world’s finest sprinter drop, yes drop, another sprinter who is undoubtedly in his ascendancy. With Tyler Farrar fixed squarely to his wheel, Mark Cavendish simply rode away from him.
Normally, when one fine sprinter is on the wheel of an even great sprinter, they will at least hold on and come off their wheel to gain a foot or two as they cross the line. The gain isn’t enough for the win, but they at least claw back some distance, now matter how tiny. Farrar is, to his credit, a young guy at the top of his game. He’s sure to get better, but he’s as fast as he has ever been and yet, he simply couldn’t match the acceleration of Cavendish while firmly planted on his wheel. This is significant because he was fast enough not to have to fight for Cavendish’s wheel and yet, Elvis left the building. Indeed, Farrar was so fast, no one could even come around him.
Cavendish is better than the other sprinters by order of magnitude. He’s like the guy fast enough to race the Pro/I/II event but keeps racing the IIIs just to have the chance to win. Cavendish needs a mandatory upgrade. Too bad there’s no one fast enough to compete against him.
The real question for the flat stages of this year’s Tour will be if anyone can ever outfox Columbia-HTC to beat Cavendish to the line.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.
When the La Vie Claire team members each took the start house at the Boulogne prologue in the 1986 Tour de France, they were the finest team ever assembled. They were to cycling what the supergroup Asia was to rock music only a few years before: immensely talented, privileged, volatile … stars.
Over 23 days that July Greg LeMond and Berhard Hinault, as assisted by Andy Hampsten, Niki Rutimann, Jean-Francois Bernard, Steve Bauer, Charly Berard, Alaign Vigneron, Philippe Leleu and Guido Winterberg all but destroyed the field. King of the Mountains leader Robert Millar, favored by some to win the mountainous edition of the race quit after contracting bronchitis. Eventual third place, Urs Zimmerman finish nearly 11 minutes down on LeMond.
By the time the team members retired, they had amassed a record unequaled to this day. Though some of these results came with other teams, the results speak for themselves; no other team has amassed such talent. Hinault and LeMond split eight Tour de France wins between them. The various members scored 11 other top-10 finishes. They combined for a total of 41 stage wins and Hinault, LeMond, Bernard and Bauer spent a total 110 days in yellow. Banesto doesn’t even come close.
As it happens, the 2009 Astana team can’t match that record. Armstrong and Contador have eight combined victories and 79 total days in the yellow jersey. Armstrong, Contador and Leipheimer account for 24 stage wins. Team members Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer and Haimar Zubeldia have nine top-10 finishes between them. It’s an impressive record, but not the ’86 La Vie Claire team. Or is it?
If we compare apples to apples, then we must consider the record of the La Vie Claire on July 4, 1986 to the record of Astana on July 4, 2009. Once we turn the clock back to the start house in Boulogne, we have a significantly different record. When Bernard Hinault rolled out of the start house clad in yellow, the team had the following resume: five Tour de France victories, three other top-10 finishes (two from LeMond and one from Hinault), 26 stage wins and 69 total days in yellow.
While La Vie Claire leads in stage wins with 26 to 24, Astana takes game and set with eight overall victories and 79 days in yellow. When you factor in the successes of the team directors, the single victory Paul Koechli could claim withers when compared to Johan Bruyneels 11 victories. Let’s put this in perspective, the L.A. Lakers’ coach, Phil Jackson, has shaped the careers of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, two of basketball’s greatest stars, and in so doing has earned 10 NBA victories. It’s a record for the sport.
After Bruyneel’s 11 wins, the next best record in cycling is that of Cyrille Guimard, who led Lucien van Impe, Hinault, Laurent Fignon and LeMond to seven victories. The difference alone—four—would make any other director’s career.
Okay, so the ’09 Astana team is the best team ever assembled, even with Dmitriy Muravyev. What does it mean for the race, though? It means that to win the Tour de France, a team will need more than one GC rider. The team will have to have a strong team to cover Astana’s moves.
It means that teams such as Marc Sergeant’s Silence-Lotto are more than unlikely to win the race. In 2008, despite crashing, Cadel Evans would likely have won the race if his team hadn’t been so thin. Sergeant’s unwillingness to re-sign the one rider Evans said he needed (the hapless Chris Horner) and his willingness to sign a rider released for irregular blood values, Thomas Dekker (the peloton’s most recent positive for EPO), show his judgment is lacking.
Jonathan Vaughters is smart enough to direct a team to victory and has done an excellent job of assembling talent. However, Christian Vande Velde will need something like a miracle to reach the podium, let alone the yellow jersey.
Carlos Sastre’s Cervelo Test Team isn’t even planning to try to win the Tour. Either they are taking the most comical reverse-psychology approach to victory yet devised or they understand reality and have adapted accordingly. I hope it’s the latter.
The best Ag2r-Mondiale, Agritubel, Bbox Bouygues Telecom, Cofidis, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Francaise des Jeux, Lampre-N.G.C., Liquigas, Quickstep, Skil-Shimano, Team Katusha and Team Milram can hope for is a stage win or two and maybe a day or two in yellow, provided the stars align.
We might as well lump Caisse d’Epargne in there as well. Oscar Periero has as much chance of winning the Tour as he does winning the prologue.
Columbia-HTC and Rabobank are in the same boat as Silence-Lotto: Sure, a Corvette is fast, but it’s hardly capable of competing in F1.
Bjarne Riis is literally the only director with the intelligence and the necessary depth of talent to meet the Astana challenge. While Andy Schleck has been advanced as the team’s lead, the presence of brother Frank gives Riis the necessary firepower to wield a two-pronged attack.
If ever the was a year when teams should forge alliances the way individual riders used to, this is it. Saxo Bank working in tandem with Columbia, Silence-Lotto or Columbia-HTC is the best chance the peloton has of beating Astana.
Strap in sports fans, this will be one for the ages.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.
I spent the 1980s working toward a career in music. I planned to make my living as a drummer and the thought of playing one stale beer-smelling club after another sounded to me like job security. Just as the band I was playing in began venturing out to clubs beyond our immediate area code, the percussionist Gary Burton published a book called “A Musician’s Guide to the Road.”
Burton’s book was a Godsend musicians all over the world. It was filled with brilliant strategies for flying with musical instruments (arrive very early) and finding clubs in cities you don’t know (put one guy in a cab and follow him).
As important as Burton’s book was to me at the time, I can say without reservation Graham Watson has created a book that is vastly superior. I predict English-language Michelin Green Guide sales will plummet in the wake of the release of this new VeloPress volume.
Watson has been covering the Tour de France for more than 30 years. It’s not a record, but it does give him serious street cred when giving advice about following the world’s most popular annual sporting event. After all, whose advice do you want on the Tour de France—the race promoter? A team director? One of the racers? Or a guy who sees every single day from the seat of a motorcycle for the soul purpose of getting great photographs to document the exploits of men we have on occasion confused with gods.
The book is broken into six chapters, one each devoted to planning your trip, following the race, a primer on France, the geography, the great climbs and getting your own photographs. It includes a great many maps and they display exactly the information cyclists will find most useful.
I tell you this: Watson has just broadcast a great many bicycle tour operators’ most guarded secrets. Fishing guides have killed for less.
Honestly, given that Michelin published a guide to the wine regions of France, I can’t fathom why the venerable caretaker of travel never undertook a guide to le Tour. But on reading Watson’s guide, his expert insight into hotel availability (like trying to get tickets to a Springsteen concert), the great riders who hail from the various towns and his ability to translate the French sensibility for the foreign tourist means that Michelin’s effort could never match this.
Of course, no book by Watson would be complete without his stunning images. You’ve seen many of these before, but his crowd and leisure shots are lip-smackingly evocative. He reveals how he gets some of his shots, the competition to get unique shots and the challenge of trying to do stellar work in less than stellar conditions. No one will read this book and contemplate the life of race photographer. At least no one with a proper sense of comfort.
The writing is surprisingly fresh and immediate. He’s even funny at times; in all, the writing is better than I expected. However, what most impresses me about the book isn’t the quality of the prose, it’s that he really captures the reality of following the race. A book of random details could easily miss the bigger picture, the enormity of the event. His in-between-the-lines insights are what make this book a gem.
I’ve used a great many books in following the Tour on the occasions I’ve been there. And while I enjoy doing the research, there’s no doubt that Watson’s book could have made my research less time-consuming … and even more enjoyable.
As riders there are rules we obey without even thinking. No tube socks. No spitting into the wind. No bare knees when it’s cold. We make our Saturday rides and find ways to get our miles in even with the pressures of work and family. Some weeks are better than others, but we are defined not by the deviation, rather the aspiration. It is the rule that tells who we are.
Does anyone really need more rules in life? The reasonable answer would seem to be no, but the rules we use can reveal a lot about our ability to judge the situations in which we find ourselves.
Are all Saturdays created equal? Must Saturday mean at least 75 miles and a few thousand feet of climbing, or is every fourth Saturday dialed back for rest?
If there is a break off the front, do we chase? Is there a teammate in the break? Is the 11 the right choice on a wet descent? Do we ride injured or sick because we can’t give up the miles?
Our constant reassessment of road conditions, the group, our own legs are—no matter how much we aim to impose our will on the bike, on the ride—a sign of humility. I once heard on the news a political analyst who specialized in the Middle East. He said, “Well the first thing you have to understand about the region is that every statement you make begins with, ‘it depends.’” To me, it was a sign of true insight.
Every new lesson I learn results in a new rule. Maybe it’s a sign of aging—that I don’t have the strength of will I used to possess—but I think my riding is more a test of my knowledge and experience now. My own wisdom has overcome my loss of youth.
But there is one riding rule I’ve come to value, even to cherish, and it’s not about riding at all, even though I learned it from the Grand Tour riders. It’s about saving. For them, it was saving something for tomorrow, next week. For me, yes, it means saving something for tomorrow, but more importantly, it means saving time for my family, saving some energy for the rest of the day, saving myself so I can be fully present for those who love me. We’re not much different from soda: That first sip is sweet, but no one wants the empty can.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.
The final kilometer of Classics and Grand Tour stages is marked with an archway from which hangs the flamme rouge—the red kite. Its passage marks the greatest drama of the race, a ratcheting up of tension and anticipation that culminates in the winner’s celebration.
Of course, the red kite holds different meanings for each rider. For the time trialists, it’s the last chance to attack and beat the sprinters at their own game. For the leadout men, there’s a final dig before pulling off to the let sprinter shine. For the sprinters, that red kite is a signal that their moment is less than two minutes to come. For much of the field, it’s simply the signal that the pain is nearly at an end.
What unites each of them is a moment that inevitably comes after passing under the red kite. Each rider will bow his head as he summons the last of his strength for the finish. It’s the same bowing of the head that recreational riders will make before rolling to the finish of a century.
Summoning the strength to make a final surge to the finish is as universal as the urge to finish; no one wants to roll across the line in defeat and that final effort is the chance to accelerate to a personal victory that comes from the satisfaction of knowing you left everything on the course.
The psychology of riders can rarely be guessed, but the red kite prayer is a moment we all share, a search for our remaining strength as we summon the will to leave it on the road.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.