LECCO, Italy (RKP) — Coursing through a pouring rain, backlit by motorcycle headlights, a broadly grinning Joaquim Rodriguez on Saturday became the first Spaniard to win the Giro di Lombardia.
The Katusha rider escaped a strong group of contenders on the final climb to Villa Vergano and held them off on the rain-lashed run into the finish to claim Il Lombardia by just nine seconds over countryman Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Colombian Rigoberto Uran (Sky Procycling).
The victory also set the 33-year-old atop the UCI WorldTour rankings with 692 points, bumping Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins down to second place with 601.
“It’s the biggest win of my life,” said Rodriguez, who this year won the Flèche Wallonne before finishing second in the Giro d’Italia and third in the Vuelta a España.
“Since this morning I just felt that things would go right. I saw people getting tired during the race and I was feeling good. But I didn’t think I’d be going to the finish on my own. I thought I’d have to contend the sprint with (Alberto) Contador and (Vincenzo) Nibali.”
The 251km “Race of the Falling Leaves” celebrated the year of Felice Gimondi’s 70th birthday with a sendoff from the man himself in Bergamo and the reintroduction of the grueling ascent of the Muro di Sormano a half-century after it proved so challenging that many a rider found himself off the bike and forced to walk.
The brutal incline, which averages 15 percent but serves up ramps as steep as 29 percent, arose after 165km of racing, including the 9.6km grind up Valico di Valcava, with a grade averaging 9 percent. Two more climbs followed the Sormano — the first to the tiny chapel of Madonna del Ghisallo and the second to Villa Vergano, where Oliver Zaugg attacked to win the 2011 edition of Il Lombardia.
It was a damp, misty day that dawned for the final major classic of the 2012 season, and with 88km to race the four survivors of a larger break — Steve Morabito (BMC Racing). Cristian Salerno (Liquigas-Cannondale), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Alberto Losada (Katusha) — held just over a minute on the peloton, which included world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), sporting his brand-new rainbow jersey, and Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), who had been on a tear since his return from suspension, winning the Vuelta a España and Milano-Torino.
As the bunch reached the foot of the Sormano, Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi) tried his luck, chasing the leaders in slow motion up the short, insanely steep lane, which — clogged as it was with screaming fans — was barely wide enough to accommodate the team cars.
Txurruka didn’t make much headway, though, and as Bardet and Losada pulled away from Morabito and Salerno, the Basque rider drifted back to the peloton.
A persistent chase gradually reeled in Salerno, then Morabito, leaving only Bardet and Losada out front, clinging to a 20-second advantage on the vicious 2km grind through a thick mist.
Losada, too, would drop off, leaving Bardet the last man standing; he topped the Sormano alone as Rodriguez briefly tested his legs behind. Purito took a slight gap over Nibali (Liquigas) and Contador going over the top, with Gilbert, Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) further back yet as the Sormano took its toll on the field.
Bardet rode cautiously down the technical descent toward Nesso, cornering gingerly on the narrow, damp road, at one point unclipping his right shoe and extending the leg for balance.
Behind, others were either less cautious or less fortunate. Gilbert crashed and ended the race in a BMC team car, his bid for a third victory in Il Lombardia at an end. Others hitting the rain-slick road included teammate Alessandro Ballan and Luca Paolini (Katusha). Paolini’s teammate Daniel Moreno likewise slid out in a slick left-hand hairpin, but remounted and continued. Even a photo moto went down in the fog.
There was a regrouping with 67km to race, on the flat preceding Madonna del Ghisallo, and some discussion among Contador, Basso and Nibali as Bardet stretched his lead out to more than a minute.
Hesjedal led a pursuit that began eating into Bardet’s advantage, trimming it to 45 seconds with 55km to go. Then Kevin de Weert (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) attacked up the right side of the road, taking a slight and brief gap over an apparently unconcerned peloton. Bardet soldiered on alone, just 27 seconds ahead but losing time to the chase.
With 52km to go the peloton had Bardet in its sights. A quick pull of the trigger and that was that — it was gruppo compatto with 51.5km to race.
The detente didn’t last long. Gritting his teeth, De Weert had another go, quickly taking a 40-second gap with 47km remaining.
At the summit of the Ghisallo De Weert had extended his lead to 45 seconds, but on the descent the pursuit began nibbling away at his advantage, closing to within a half minute with 37km to race, as Losado did yeoman’s work at the front for team leader Rodriguez.
A few kilometers later Nibali, Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) and Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) all went down in a slick corner. And then De Weert slid out in a right-hander, and that put paid to his day in the sun with 30km remaining.
Losado continued to drive the bunch as Basso looked around for Nibali, who was off the back after his spill.
And then Rui da Costa (Movistar) attacked up the left side of the road alongside Lake Como. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel) followed, and as Basso dropped back for a word with Nibali there were two off the front with 23km to go.
Basso shepherded Nibali back to the other contenders as Losado, incredibly, continued dragging a greatly reduced peloton along. Finally Lars Petter Nordhaug (Sky Procycling) took over the chase with a pair of Lampres in his slipstream.
Nieve dropped back but da Costa kept plugging away, holding to a lead of some 20-odd seconds as he raced toward the final climb of the day, to Villa Vergano. There was no question of his remaining out front, however — behind, Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel), Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Hesjedal were all edging forward, awaiting opportunity.
With 13.5km remaining Da Costa sat up and called it a day as the peloton — down to perhaps 30 riders — rolled toward what would be a dark, sodden finale.
Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) attacked early on the Villa Vergano climb, which averaged 6 percent and maxed out at 12. Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel) and Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha) followed as Hesjedal led the chase.
The rain worsened as the kilometers ticked off toward single digits, and umbrellas popped up along the finish line.
And then Purito leapt away on the final climb, as Zaugg had last year, and with 8km remaining the Spaniard was on his own, driving toward the line. Chasing some 10 seconds down, raising roostertails in the rain, were Hesjedal, Uran and Sergio Henao (Sky), Nairo Alexander Quintana (Movistar), Mauro Santambrogio (BMC), Contador and defending champion Zaugg.
The conditions were atrocious on the final descent, yet, incredibly, neither hare nor hounds went down. And as the road flattened out with 3km to go Rodriguez was still powering along alone out front.
The chase was growing bigger, though, as Mollema, Frekrik Kessiakoff (Astana) and Franco Pellizotti (Androni Giocattoli) latched on. And that may have played out to Rodriguez’s advantage, with no one eager to tow a rival toward victory.
Or perhaps it was simply a matter of resignation to the inevitable.
“We expected Rodriguez to attack on the final climb, or else Contador,” said Uran, who earlier in the week won the Giro del Piemonte. “When he did, we just couldn’t follow.”
Images: Fotoreporter Sirotti, RCS Sport
With four riders jammed within 96 seconds of Joaquim Rodriguez’s maglia rosa, we’re about to witness one of the closet Giro finishes in recent years.
Garmin-Barracuda’s Ryder Hesjedal is Rodriguez’s closest challenger. With two stages in the Dolomites and the final stage’s individual time trial in Milan, can the Canadian overcome the deficit to win his nation’s first grand tour?
And what about Liquigas-Cannondale’s Ivan Basso and Lampre’s Michele Scarponi? The Italians have won the last two editions (although Scarponi took his by virtue of Contador’s disqualification), but sit more than a minute behind Rodriguez. They might have the strongest teams in the race, but do they have the legs to gain back the time they lost to Rodriguez earlier in the three-week event?
No matter what happens, this weekend will likely bring the closest finish in recent memory.
So who’s your pick to take the win and how will he do it?
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
So far we’ve covered Men of the Hour and Up-and-Comers as part of our 2012 Season Preview; now it’s time for a list of the riders and teams who find themselves “on the hot seat” heading into the 2012 season.
Andy Schleck—It’s rarely a good thing when you’re being compared to Joop Zoetemelk. But that’s just the awkward place in which Radio Shack-Nissan’s Andy Schleck finds himself heading into the 2012 season. Schleck has now finished as runner-up at the Tour de France four times*. The good news: Contador’s not racing and Schleck will find himself leading a stronger squad with nine-time Tour de France winning DS Johan Bruyneel driving the team car. The bad news: he’s running out of excuses. And with a 2012 Tour route that emphasizes time trialing over climbing, Schleck could soon find himself one race away from equaling Zoetemelk’s record of six second-place finishes. Then again, even Joop won the race once.
(*Andy’s not counting 2010 as a victory, and neither am I.)
Janez Brajkovic—Two seasons ago Slovenia’s Janez Brajkovic won the Criterium du Dauphiné for Team RadioShack with an impressive mix of climbing and time trialing; at the time he looked to be Johan Bruyneel’s next grand tour champion. But cycling’s a cruel sport and a year later Brajkovic found himself lying on the side of the road during Stage 5 of the 2011 Tour de France; his injuries sent him home less than a week into the Tour. The 28-year-old now rides for Astana, a squad that will welcome another GC contender to ride alongside Roman Kreuziger. Assuming Kreuziger targets the 2012 Giro d’Italia (a race in which he finished sixth last year), Brajkovic might find little stands between him and another chance at Tour leadership.
BMC—Earlier I included BMC on my list of Men of the Hour—and they deserve the distinction. But they also find themselves on the Hot Seat—here’s why:
- Philippe Gilbert, Cadel Evans, and Thor Hushovd will draw intense scrutiny after their 2011 exploits. The only feat more impressive than Gilbert’s 2011 season would be repeating the feat in 2012. As for Evans, he’ll soon find that winning a Tour is one thing, while defending the title is an entirely different proposition (just ask Carlos Sastre and history’s other 1-time winners). And Thor? Well, he did a quite bit of talking in 2011 about how unhappy he was at Garmin-Cervelo. Now he gets to show us what he can do while riding for a team where he feels his “leadership” is safe and secure.
- America’s great young hopes—Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen—need to show some progression in 2012. Phinney needs to turn his lessons from 2011 into results in 2012 while Van Garderen needs to win a week-long stage race—Paris-Nice would be a fantastic start.
- Aging and former stars such as George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan will fight to stay relevant just within their own squad. I’m still holding out hope that Thor’s arrival will give Hincapie the leash he needs to win Roubaix. As for Ballan, his continued presence on the roster surprises me considering his lack of results and the continued investigation of his role in the Mantova doping case.
- Last, but not least: chemistry. It takes a lot to manage the egos and aspirations of a professional cycling team, let alone a squad with so many high-profile stars. Evans, Gilbert, and Hushovd have all had moments where they appeared unable to play well with others—or at least unable to do so while keeping their mouths shut about it. Jim Ochowicz and the rest of BMC’s management will need to anticipate flare-ups before they happen and work quickly to extinguish problems before they spread.
Mark Cavendish—British rider, British team, World Champion, London Olympics—assuming he makes it through the Tour unscathed, Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish will likely face more Olympic pressure than any rider has ever known. With two stage wins in Qatar, at least he’s off to a good start.
Riders with Names Ending in “-ov”—In particular, I’m thinking of Alexandre Vinokourov, Alexandr Kolobnev, and Denis Menchov. As for Vino, he’s trying to end his career with some measure of respect at Astana, while putting behind him the “allegations” that he bought the 2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege from Alexandr Kolobnev (who’s been provisionally suspended for testing positive for masking agents at the 2011 Tour de France). Denis Menchov made a major career mistake when he transferred from Rabobank to Geox-TMC after a 2010 season that saw him finish third in the Tour de France. Unfortuantely, the supposed skeletons in the closets of Geox’s management meant there would be no Tour de France for the Spanish squad, so Menchov found himself sitting at home in July; he finished 8th in the Giro and 5tht in the Vuelta, but failed to make a major impact in either race. This year he finds himself riding for Katusha and should get another crack at leading a team the Tour. Believe it or not, the parcours suits him quite well, and another podium shot is certainly well within his reach.
Italy—Italians won 102 races in 2011, but few of any import. Worse still, the country’s grand tour riders came up empty after winning the Giro and the Vuelta in 2010. So it should come as no surprise that changes are in store for 2012. First, Liquigas rider Ivan Basso seems to have given-up on his Tour de France dreams; the 34-year-old has instead set his sights on winning his third Giro d’Italia. As for Vincenzo Nibali, the Tour de France was supposed to be his big goal for 2012; he finished 7tht in 2009 and has learned how to win and lose a grand tour in the two seasons since his breakthrough. That said, Nibali hasn’t ruled-out the Giro d’Italia either, an interesting proposition considering his toughest rival might also be his teammate.
In the classics, another poor season for Filippo Pozzato lost him his World Tour ride; he now leads Farnese-Vini, a team whose prospects—and race invitations—seemed to be improving until the charismatic,but frustrating, Italian “star” broke his collarbone. More weeks of training down the drain. Damiano Cunego still seems years away from his former race-winning self and Alessandro Ballan? Well, your guess is as good as mine.
But of all the Italians feeling pressure to perform in 2012, national team coach Paolo Bettini is likely to be feeling it the most. He’ll have two chances to redeem himself in 2012: the Olympics and Worlds. If he can’t do it, look for a change at the helm of the federation’s national squad.
Thomas Voeckler—Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler will be hard-pressed to re-create his Tour de France heroics from 2011. Let’s hope he doesn’t really take his Tour prospects seriously enough to sacrifice his chances in other races, as he’s one of the sport’s most exciting stars.
Monument Race Organizations—Changing the route or the date of a Monument is never a popular decision, but in 2012 we’ll see significant alterations to two of the sport’s oldest and most prestigious races. First off, the organizers of April’s Tour of Flanders have decided that the traditional Muur/Bosberg finale is too…predictable? Easy? Boring? To be honest, I’m not really sure what they were thinking, but if this year’s “new and improved” set of finishing circuits doesn’t lead to a spectacular win for either Philippe Gilbert or Tom Boonen, there will be hell to pay in Oudenaarde.
As for Italy’s “Race of the Falling Leaves”, il Lombardia (a name I’m still getting used to saying), a move to September means the leaves won’t be falling anymore. The UCI is hoping that an earlier date will see more in-form riders contest the late-season event, even if the scenery proves to be a less spectacular. The switch has a better chance of producing a more exciting race than the changes to Flanders do, but the sport’s purists are still shaking their heads.
Campagnolo—With more and more teams choosing Shimano or SRAM for their components, Campagnolo has to be feeling some pressure to remain relevant. Of the 18 teams in this year’s World Tour, only three (Lotto-Belisol, Lampre-ISD, and Movistar) will be riding the Italian groupsets in 2012 (Team Europcar, one of the sport’s better Professional Continental squads, will be racing Campy as well). The company’s new EPS electronic group was beginning to generate a bit of buzz—and then SRAM introduced its new Red grouppo and stole most of the spotlight. Campy’s still relying on decades of cachet to drive sales, but one has to wonder if they can keep up.
Team NetApp—They won one race last year—the time trial at the 2.2 Tour Gallipoli. They barely made a ripple at last year’s Amgen Tour of California—one of the biggest events on their calendar. Now they’re riding the Giro d’Italia? If the Giro had a Super PAC, Net App would have just made a significant donation.
Bjarne Riis—Even with a suspension and the loss of two grand tour titles, Alberto Contador will be just fine. As for Bjarne Riis and Team Saxo Bank-Sunguard? Well, that’s another issue entirely. It seems that Riis is almost always struggling to find new sponsors to help his team survive from one season to the next; now he faces six months without his Spanish star and the possible loss of his team’s World Team license. There were rumors circulating that Stefano Garzelli might sign with Saxo Bank after his Acqua & Sapone squad was not invited to the Giro d’Italia. Given Garzelli’s track record at the Italian grand tour, that might not be a bad option for the Danish general manager.
Who’s on your Hot Seat? Share your comments below.
Follow me on Twitter: @WhitYost
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
If you’d asked me before the Tour started to list ten things that might happen during this year’s race, I don’t think the list would have included Alberto Contador losing time on multiple stages. I wouldn’t have suggested Andy Schleck would pull up timid on a rainy Alpine descent and brake his way out of contention. And I certainly wouldn’t have listed an assertive ride by a yellow-jersey-wearing Thomas Voeckler as perhaps the best single piece of evidence that the peloton is cleaner than it once was. God knows I wouldn’t have envisioned Thor Hushovd winning two mountain stages.
Nope, I wouldn’t have considered any of those as even remotely possible. But every one has come to pass.
With his ride in stage 16 Contador has proven that to count him out is to define foolhardy. I’m doubtful of his chances to win, but one can afford to be nonchalant in his presence the way one can be nonchalant around a cobra. Even if he can manage 15 or 20 seconds on all his rivals over the three remaining mountain stages and the time trial, that won’t be enough to boost him onto the podium.
One wonders whose ambition it was to even dream Contador could sweep all three Grand Tours this year. Was it Contador himself or was it Bjarne Riis? And if it was Riis, what will the repercussions be should Pistolero not pull a rabbit out of his hat before Paris? If Contador can’t pull off this victory, the age of the Giro-Tour double will truly have passed.
With the piece of descending we saw Schleck exhibit on the drop into Gap, the timidity that resulted in him losing 1:09 to Cadel Evans and 1:06 to Contador probably dashed his hopes to win this Tour. Frankly, his riding was so un-PRO that he doesn’t deserve the podium.
Darwin wrote that the story of the world was one of adaptation, descent with modification. Faced with obsolescence at the legs of Mark Cavendish, Hushovd has reinvented himself more thoroughly than any rider since Laurent Jalabert’s phoenix act in the 1990s. I consider him one of the three smartest riders in the race. He is the embodiment of the adage, “le tete et le jambs.”
As to Voeckler, he was already on what is arguably the best season he has ever enjoyed even before arriving at the Tour. So we must grant that he’s a better rider than he was in 2004, the first time he took the yellow jersey at the Tour. That said, in the era of Armstrong et al, sheer combativeness and tenacity weren’t enough to hold on to yellow. To suggest that will alone is enough is to believe that you really can stop a bullet by putting your finger in the barrel of a gun.
French cycling has been very nearly the laughingstock of the peloton since the Festina Affair. I’ve wondered if French athletes didn’t take some lesson from the incident to heart. Following the confessions that came as a result of the Festina Affair only six French athletes have tested positive (many countries have had two dozen or more), and the only one of them who was a notable GC rider was Pascal Hervé (yes, he of the Festina Affair), and that was in 2001.
I’ve often thought the fact that there has been only one prominent French GC rider (Christophe Moreau) in the last 10 years and the fact that French cycling has been curiously devoid of doping scandals weren’t just coincidences. I see it as cause and effect.
There’s an arc to this story. French riders were late to the EPO wagon; the Netherlands and Italy led the way, but they caught up, and in a big way, which is why Richard Virenque was one of the most feared climbers in the peloton during that time. And then we get Willy Voet’s ill-fated border crossing and Virenque’s teary confession in front of a judge.
To me, that past, those details and now Voeckler’s performance en jaune are of a piece. If you’re at your limit because the peloton rides at two speeds, then there’s no way for you to respond to an acceleration by a certified contender like Ivan Basso. That is, not unless everyone’s on the same program.
This is guesswork on my part; educated, but still guesswork. Still, it leads me to say that I find it easier to believe that Basso and Contador are clean than Voeckler is dirty. If we can have guilt by association, then maybe we can have innocence by association, too.
After all the scandals, the mudslinging, the unsubstantiated accusations and crazy revelations, the best possible thing that could happen for cycling right now is for Thomas Voeckler to arrive in Paris, clad in yellow. I’m not willing to put five bucks on that happening just yet, but it’s an outcome I’d cheer for, just the way I cheered in 1999.
Image, John Pierce, Photosport International
On this, the Sunday of the Tour, I’ve been taking stock of the race up until now. The short answer is that this is one of my favorite editions of the Tour in years, probably since the 1990s. I like the Tour best when the race seems wide open, when the obvious drama of the event is how its outcome can’t be guessed by either experts or its newest followers.
To be sure, I think the eventual winner will have the last name of either Evans or Schleck, but that’s three possible outcomes and a bad day by any of them could open the door to Basso, Contador or—gasp—Sanchez or even—double gasp—Voeckler! Jens Voigt observed that Voeckler is riding on credit; few would argue that he hasn’t already overdrawn his account. But while we’ve been waiting for him to fold as any interloper is supposed to do according to the race’s script, he has shown more than mere tenacity. His surges to bring back the likes of Basso and Schleck seemed to irritate Schleck the younger, judging from his elbow waves.
What I saw in Voeckler was a man who will not go quietly, won’t concede that he’s a pretender to the throne. I can’t recall seeing a rider more out of his element ride with greater courage than when Voeckler launched that massive acceleration to go after Basso.
What has surprised me is how many journalists, bloggers and friends have complained of uninteresting and negative racing. Perhaps I was watching a different race. What I saw on stage 14 looked like the sixth round of a ten-round title fight. Each of those attacks would have crumpled mortal riders. Watching for who might attack next and when the attack did come watching for who was slow to respond kept me leaning into the TV and breathless.
We have four mountain stages left. The first two end with descents (yay, I like descents), while the final two end atop hors categorie climbs. Tomorrow’s stage into Gap is one where a breakaway with no-name riders might, finally, work. We’re bound to see some fireworks on the climb to Sestrieres, but it’s unlikely to result in any significant shakeup to the GC. Would could be interesting, though, is the steep descent off of the Cote de Pramartino with less than a half kilometer of flat to the finish. I wouldn’t be surprised if Voeckler punched it on the descent.
Some race fans won’t like it, but the big moves that decide the race will happen on the Galibier on their way to Serre Chevalier. The riders can’t afford to wait for l’Alpe d’Huez to try to blow the race apart. The Col Agnel is, based on my experience, steep enough that many domestiques will be rendered useless long before the race reaches the foot of the Col d’Izoard.
A word on stage 19: It’s as classic a mountain stage as can be devised. Begin the day with a downhill warmup to the foot of the Col du Telegraphe. After 12km of climbing, give them a brief (4km) descent to recover before throwing them at one of the most feared climbs in cycling, the 18km up to the Col du Galibier. Don’t expect a break including any favorites to go there, though. The descent from the top of the Galibier to the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez is nearly 50km and except for the upper portion of the Galibier, it’s not a technical descent; a group can haul ass (that’s a technical term) for le Bourg d’Oisans.
We can forgive the riders if they seem a bit conservative, even tentative. While the stage 14 attacks can’t be called timid, the responses in most cases were an only-as-much-as-necessary effort to keep the opposition in check. With the race this tight, one wrong move could dock you six spots on GC.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Today was an example of precisely why the Tour de France is the greatest annual sporting event on the planet. We had a real bike race. While we couldn’t seem to have a day go without at least one significant crash (Andreas Klöden), the real thrust of the day was the racing not some tangential drama.
The biggest surprise of the day was being reminded that this was Samuel Sanchez’ first Tour stage win. He’s a rider of such colossal talent that a Tour stage missing from his palmares felt a bit like an oversight. Yet his ride was hardly the best of the day.
I’ve secretly had my money on Frank Schleck for this year’s race. I think he has the maturity his brother lacks and this year his form seems at least equal to his brothers, maybe even better. To watch him ride up the road and see the weak response reminded me of the sort of glee I feel when the bad guy gets killed in a horror movie, not that I think Cadel Evans or any of the other GC favorites are bad guys, mind you.
Which naturally brings me to Alberto Contador. It is my sincere hope that his performance today wasn’t hampered by his knee. I respect that a rider beaten is a rider beaten, but my personal belief is that whoever wins the Tour—should it turn out not to be him—deserves to know he beat him straight up.
I’ve suspected that Ivan Basso’s near-anonymous performance up until now was the result of him saving himself. Today’s late-race surge supports that. Seeing him work with Evans to try to pull back time on Schleck with Contador struggling to maintain contact and Schleck the younger dutifully playing the scavenger and just sitting on Contador’s wheel was, pardon me, a thrilling bit of racing.
Nearly as great a surprise as today’s win being Sanchez’ first Tour stage was how little time Thomas Voeckler gave up to Schleck and Evans. It was a stunning piece of racing and gave rise to my favorite performance of the day:
Long after every other team’s last domestique had Roman Candled their legs earlier on the mountain, Rolland not only stuck by his charge, but helped pace him back into the lead group following accelerations that were more than Voeckler could handle. It doesn’t hurt, either, that his service was such that the casual viewer of the Tour wouldn’t appreciate the work he put in, the difficulty of the task he accomplished. The finish line hug between the two was one of those private moments between teammates, not meant for our eyes, even if it did happen on the world stage.
As for the mighty RadioShack, they have two riders in the top 20 on GC. It’s not the sort of performance anyone expected from Johan Bruyneel’s team and probably not the sort of performance that would cause RadioShack to renew their contract at the end of this year.
And what would a day at the Tour without a little more love for Johnny Hoogerland? That he took off on the unknown Horquette d’Ancizan (a climb whose difficulty I can attest to) and attempted to build a gap to gain more points in the king of the mountains competition was the best. I don’t mind that he lost the jersey today; that was inevitable. However, I am bummed he didn’t manage to pick up a single point. I’d have loved the statement that would have made. His attempt was more than enough, though.
When Monty Python and the Holy Grail is finally re-made, Hoogerland will play the knight who says, “It’s only a flesh wound.”
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It was just more than a week ago most Tour observers, which is to say all but the 198 riders in the event, were wringing their hands in the anticipated ennui brought on by Alberto Contador’s virtually assured dominance of said Tour. To call our projection of the future a state of anxiety is to confuse being eaten by a Great White Shark with stubbing your toe.
The tiny Spaniard, we assumed, was going to trounce everyone and everything like the school bully. It was an image fraught with contradiction.
But it’s an interesting world full of unexpected turns. Alberto Contador currently sits in 39th place on the GC, an incredible 1:42 down on Thor Hushovd, but more importantly, 1:41 down on Cadel Evans, a rider who, at the age of 34, is statistically certain not to win the Tour de France. Let me phrase that a bit differently: Since the end of World War II, no rider has won their first Tour de France at such an, ahem, advanced age.
But statistics aren’t a record of what’s possible, just what’s happened so far.
How we imagine the world going forward, what we think can happen, can be born in the tiniest of moments. It was in the stage 4 sprint that I saw the possibility that Alberto Contador might not already have the 2011 Tour de France in the bag. Allow me to explain.
The Tour’s history includes plenty of examples of riders who lost time early in the race only to recoup it all and then some with a couple of days in the mountains. Even Greg LeMond pulled back 10 freakin’ minutes on a guy who had more EPO in his blood than plasma. I wasn’t concerned when Contador lost 1:20 on the opening stage. Come on? To Philippe Gilbert? Gilbert is likely to go down as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—one-day riders of his generation. But Grand Tour winner? I’ve covered this.
What was certainly more interesting was the fact that he’d given up 1:17 to Cadel Evans, and 1:14 to both Andy and Frank Schleck, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner. That Contador has risen to 39th from 82nd says less about his riding (after all, he has lost time while rising on GC) and more about how the field gradually implodes over time.
It was in stage 4, in watching the reactions of Contador and Evans as they hit the line that I began to wonder if this year might truly be different. The details were small, but changes are often found in a single grain of sand. First was the fact that Contador was surprised when he didn’t ride everyone off his wheel. Second, he waited a long time, too long as it turns out, to take a second run at the sprint. Third, he sprinted with his hands on the hoods, a position from which you really can’t generate the most powerful sprint. Finally, he permitted himself a slight celebratory salute for a win he hadn’t actually earned. It’s that last that sticks with me.
Did he, like the rest of us, assume that the 2011 Tour de France was a mere formality? I liken it to sitting down for escrow on a new home. All the negotiations are complete. The documents are drawn. By the time you sit down, all you’re going to do is sign your name again and again.
Ideally, if I’m going to see last year’s Tour de France champion beaten, I’d like to see him defeated on his home court—the mountains—rather than in an accumulation of rotten luck early in the race. The events of these days may remind us of a certain performance last year than finished with an ignominious departure for a former giant. The parallels here are juicy, but the fruit not yet ripe to pick.
Ladies and gentlemen, this thing is wide open.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Every cycling site on the planet has postulated some theory about just which rider could conceivably beat Alberto Contador. Naturally, almost no one places much stock in their theories because all indications are that Contador will spend the next three weeks riding at an endurance pace and then making the odd acceleration to dust off his legs … and the competition. As foregone conclusions go, this harkens back to the time of Miguel Indurain when it felt like the other guys rolled up for the prologue hoping, at best, for second. Despite his ongoing dominance, it felt like there was more fight in the air as Lance Armstrong was winning.
Currently, Radio Shack is the only team showing up with anything like a strategy. Their stated game plan of four general classification riders is the right idea. Rather than sending them all up the road in a single shotgun blast, repeated attacks by each of their protected riders has the potential to put a strong rider on the defensive. It’s not possible for one guy to respond to each attack by a group of peers. Eventually you either crack or have to let someone go. Unless you’re Contador. The trouble I see here is that Radio Shack simply isn’t strong enough to deliver enough knockout blows to dislodge Contador from the lead group. Certainly, Contador will get smart to the sequence of attacks and his propensity to launch his own, withering, attack that has the ability to make previous attacks look like accidental surges could easily negate the whole of the Radio Shack team.
To make the us against him strategy work, a combine of teams will be necessary. That’s because even though Leopard-Trek will have two of the strongest riders in the race, the Schleck’s brotherly love will see them try to leave the field together, rather than truly alternate attacks. Their inability to take Philippe Gilbert at Liege-Bastogne-Liege showed their lack of tactical genius necessary to use their numbers to optimal advantage.
To beat Contador, Leopard will have to join with Liquigas and BMC and Euskaltel. This is a climbing Tour and Andy Schleck will have to choose whether he wants to ride for second or see Contador beaten. That’s the choice; for any of the GC favorites, the options are to work with other teams to collectively defeat Contador or resign yourself to racing for, at best, second. Even if the teams come together, the odds that a protected GC rider will win the overall don’t improve any. That’s why such a strategy is unlikely to succeed or even last the whole of the race.
It’s possible, though unlikely, that Contador has overplayed his fitness and won’t be as sharp in the third week as he needs to be. These days, very few riders can be fit enough to win the Giro and then go on to win the Tour. But Contador is at the height of his powers. Still, holding peak form for two months is like creating a balanced government budget—easier said than done. Adding yet another unusual wrinkle to all this is the embattled Spaniard’s decision to go vegetarian for the Tour. We must suppose that his chef has the ability to deliver the balanced diet necessary for Contador to ride well. Still, that does not ensure that his body will necessarily agree with said diet. It’s a big change to make so close to the race. The new diet is conceivably the greatest obstacle he faces.
As a total aside, Contador’s new diet is absolutely his best argument for his innocence I’ve heard. It should have no bearing on the case before CAS, but from the standpoint of a gut-check reaction to the individual, I’m chastened by his declaration.
What I see before us is a mouse smarter than the mouse trap. No one can attack with the paint-peeling acceleration he has and only Andy Schleck has the ability to accelerate as many times in 10k as Contador can. In my mind’s eye I see a flurry of attacks with accelerations that impress us, but followed by a counter-attack by Contador that casts his competitors as Mustangs compared to his Ferrari. “You thought that was fast? Check this out.” We’re all going to need neck braces to deal with his head-tossing speed.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
So Alberto Contador won the Tour de France by a margin slimmer than many said was possible, a margin equal to what he clawed out with the aid of Dennis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez on stage 15. We can argue about all the places each rider gained or lost time, but really, the race comes down to two fateful events: Schleck’s mis-shift on 15 and his later 39-second gap in the final time trial. The symmetry of the two events is more difficult to ignore than the economy.
And just to be ultra-clear about this, yes, I’m saying that without help from both Menchov and Sanchez, Contador wouldn’t have won the Tour.
I should also point out that even though he twice went for stage wins for himself, Alexander Vinokourov proved to be both valuable and loyal to Contador in the mountain stages. Vinokourov sat on Schleck on stage 15 and never rode for himself by taking a pull at the front of the group. He’ll always be an unpredictable element in my mind, but he demonstrated his value to the Astana team repeatedly. He deserves to be recognized.
But individual performances aside, if we back up and look at the 2010 Tour de France as an elaborate chess game involving 22 players, some interesting questions emerge.
First, what the hell has Johan Bruyneel been thinking? He fielded the most experienced team in the Tour de France, sure, but it was also the oldest team by an Egyptian pharaoh. The most youthful element of the team was the management company’s formation documents. Even if we accept the possibility that the fight went out of Armstrong following his daily crashes so that by the time the time trial came around, he really wasn’t trying—which is why we didn’t see the form necessary to win the race overall anywhere in the same time zone as him—we should still ask the question: Why did no one else other than Chris Horner ride like his career was at stake?
Speaking of recognition, let’s hope that Horner feels some satisfaction and vindication at his stellar ride. It’s one of the best performances by a rider over the age of 35 ever at the Tour, and is his single best performance there. It was his misfortune to sign for a French team when he first went to Europe and his worse fortune to have his career coincide with Armstrong’s. Had he hit Europe five years earlier than he did, he could have led Motorola in its quest to do something significant in a Grand Tour. Or not. There have long been reports that Jim Ochowicz (director of Motorola and now one of the powers that be at BMC) had issues with the formerly feisty San Diegan.
Back to Bruyneel. His reputation as a kingmaker able to deliver a worthy rider to a Grand Tour victory has suffered its first setback. Even with the triple-barrel shotgun of Armstrong, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer he was unable to deliver any one of them to the top 10. Horner’s performance was the sort of showing that the French teams generally hope to luck into but can plan no better than a chimp considering retirement.
With that much talent and so little to show for it, the brass at The Shack might be understandably perturbed.
This time last year many of us were beginning to rethink what might be possible age-wise in a Grand Tour. Now, the near complete waterlogging of Radio Shack has most cycling fans thinking that, yes, age really does slow you down. Too much to deliver a win on the world’s biggest stage.
And cast in the light of failure, Armstrong seems less ambitious, less hungry, less focused on highlighting the cause of cancer than just gluttonous, a corpulent ego.
But that’s how we play it isn’t it? When our heroes fall, we pounce.
But even if the Radio Shack board is less than thrilled, imagine what’s going on in the boardroom at Sky. Isn’t the question there whose head rolls first?
Seemingly a world away, Bjarne Riis has proven that he knows how to bring the race to anyone he wants. He’s delivered Tyler Hamilton, Carlos Sastre, Ivan Basso and Andy Schleck all to podium finishes at Grand Tours, though his record of wins (just two) is rather slim despite the obvious strength of his team.
Yvon Sanquer, a name you may not be very familiar with even after his team’s success, is the director of Team Astana and has kept a profile nearly as high as that of newly mown grass. His previous best result as a team director was after being brought in to rescue Team Festina (not unlike what he was asked to do with Astana) and his riders (mostly Marcel Wüst) were able to take a stage of the Tour de France along with four stages of the Vuelta plus some stages at lesser stage races. Before 2010, his riders’ closest association to the winner of a Grand Tour was if they had chatted with him.
And yet, somehow Sanquer brought together what seemed to be an underpowered team and saw to it that Contador was rarely without help in the mountains.
Despite the Astana team performing as if it were still run by Johan Bruyneel—admit it, it was an impressive performance that very few thought could truly deliver the goods as a cohesive unit this past January—I am surprised by the number of people I hear from who just plain don’t like Alberto Contador. To the degree that maybe many cycling fans were less than enthusiastic about him, it seems that even if his counter attack on stage 15 didn’t rile people, the fact that he lied about not knowing what was going on with Andy Schleck seems to have sent some fans around the bend. I’ve not been a fan of some of his tactics, and have thought some of his interviews with the Spanish media were whiny and meant to play the pity card, which strikes me as unseemly—like the Super Bowl winning team sniffling about playing hurt, but it struck me as insulting to fans everywhere for him to claim he couldn’t tell there was anything wrong with Schleck.
Which brings me to Jonathan Vaughters. Of the teams bidding for Contador’s services last year, Vaughters’ Garmin-Transitions formation was one of the teams in the running to sign the diminutive Spaniard. There are reports that after all of his efforts to leave Astana he is now considering a new contract and staying.
Contador would do well to leave, so long as he left for Vaughters. Of the many team directors at the Tour de France, Vaughters is the one that seems to have an uncanny ability to help riders achieve greatness in the GC that he never could reach on his own. In three years of competing in the Tour de France Vaughters has delivered three different riders to top-10 finishes, first with Christian Vande Velde’s fourth place, then Bradley Wiggins fourth and now Ryder Hesjedal’s seventh place. In each case the riders were uniformly believed to be talented, but no one—other than Vaughters—considered them real GC vehicles on which to pin a team’s hopes.
Sanquer’s success with Contador suggests competence, nothing more. After all, if you can’t guide a previous Tour de France winning to yet another victory, what kind of team director are you?
Bjarne Riis has consistently put together one of the strongest, most cohesive teams on the planet. That he hasn’t won more may be a question of formula more than anything else. The question seems to be, ‘Why didn’t he win?’ rather than, ‘What’s it going to take to secure another win?’
Bruyneel is the great curiosity this year. He’s ripe for criticism. How should he deflect the charge that he went with Armstrong less for career than paycheck? If he didn’t go to Radio Shack for the paycheck, then why? It’s hard for Bruyneel to charge that Vinokourov is a more tarnished rider than some he has worked with. Contador clearly has a greater future than Armstrong does. Maybe the question is just how loyal a guy is Bruyneel. Some folks are loyal to a fault. Could it be so with him?
Even if he didn’t go to Radio Shack just for a bigger paycheck that is virtually guaranteed not to dry up mid-way through the season, where does he rank his ambitions as a director? Twelve of the team’s 26 riders have had their 30th birthday. Six of them are older than 32. The only rider on the team who is showing talent and is early in his career is Janez Brajkovič. Taylor Phinney doesn’t count because he’s only a staigiaire.
How else do you wind up with that many riders in need of a retirement party than by selecting a crew that can be depended on being utterly devoted to Armstrong? Now, there’s nothing wrong with being committed to supporting your team leader, but it is fair to ask how smart it is to construct a team for a single year’s performance. Even if Leipheimer, Klöden, Horner and Rubiera plan to ride Grand Tours next year, how capable will any of them be? Horner is the only guy I’d bet on as a good support rider for the simple reason that he is obviously still proving his value and talent long after most guys have quit.
You want to make the 2011 Tour de France really interesting? Get Vaughters to sign Horner.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International