We’re more than a third of the way through the racing season and only last week did we experience what I consider to be a truly important day of bike racing, one worth remembering. The race in question was stage 5 of the Amgen Tour of California. A few different things happened that day, notable things, things that might teach us a lesson or two.
The first detail from the stage worth recalling was that a group of riders went to the front and waited, waited for a stiff headwind to shift to a crosswind. And when the turn came that shifted the wind 90 degrees or so, they hit the afterburners. The mayhem that caused further back in the pack held me breathless the way the last 5k of any Paris-Roubaix does. I kept waiting for someone to take over, some team to get organized, someone to make an effort that causes us to evoke all those phrases of machine-assisted work: drilled it, laid down the wood, gunned it, hit the jets. You get the idea.
And the move, the move we expected to come from race leader Janier Acevedo’s Jamis-Hagens Berman team—we certainly didn’t expect the bantam-weight climber to do the work himself—well, it never came. There’s been a lot of speculation that the lack of race radios and the resulting choke on extra-peloton communication was the deciding factor. Had Acevedo been on a Colombian team surrounded by like-abilitied teammates, the more likely answer would be that they simply didn’t have the fire power necessary to close the gap. But considering the number of first-rate domestic pros on the squad which includes guys like Ben Jacques-Maynes, you begin to wonder if perhaps they weren’t hiding in the pack and saving their matches for bigger fireworks to come. It’s the rare team that can police the front of a race for five or six days.
Would have a race radio changed matters? Very likely. The commissars will report who is at the front of the peloton and the fact that BMC was massing at the front is the sort of thing that usually gets communicated. Had they had race radios, the Jamis-Hagens Berman team would likely have made their way forward in the pack before the split occurred, or at least before the situation became completely irreversible. The result? We got real racing that day and the GC changed some place other than a time trial or mountain.
That group that got away included the oldest guy in the race, the oldest on a big team, easily the fastest guy over 40, Jens Voigt. His attack and subsequent solo effort were terrific fun to watch. It gave us a storyline we like: Guy everyone likes wins bike race. Bike fans go home or turn off the TV feeling satisfied.
Jens Voigt is the Chuck Norris of cycling. He’s old enough to be the father of some neo-pros; he’s tougher than gristle; he’s fast as email; and he’s fertile as the Mississippi delta. Who wouldn’t want to be all that?
But Voigt is also an East German who rode for Bjarne Riis at CSC in the mid 2000s and won some notable races; it’s hard to conclude that he’s always been a clean rider. Did he dope his entire career? I doubt it. I’d be willing to believe that he was clean in ’97 while he raced for the Australian Institute for Sport. Was he clean while on GAN from ’98 to ’03? That seems a little less likely. He won the Criterium Internationale in ’99. The problem we’ve had with doping is that while not everyone did it, those who won with any regularity have mostly been demonstrated to have doped.
What about his years at CSC—’04 to ’10? He won the Deutschland Tour twice, the Tour Mediterranean once and the Criterium Internationale four (4!) more times.
Do I think he has always ridden clean? No. Is Voigt clean today? Maybe. Maybe even probably. It’s worth adding that Voigt is a great example of how liking a rider may blind us to unsettling questions about a rider’s success during a particularly dirty period in the sport’s history. Voigt is the perfect example of a rider whose likely former doping we would prefer not to contemplate. It’s too messy, too ugly a thing to unpack. It’s perhaps the best argument for why all the riders from that generation should retire. It’s easier not to deal with it. We like him and if he retires with no confession in place, we can keep one of the final, remaining façades up.
I put that idea forward because what ought to happen—a full, unexpurgated history of who used what, when—grows increasingly unlikely with the prospect of McQuaid continuing as UCI president. And because the UCI is too compromised to be trusted, Voigt remains a nagging question mark. This is where a truth and reconciliation commission could really help, but I don’t think we’re going to get that unless McQuaid stipulates that anything revealed about Hein Verbruggen and him includes amnesty. And McQuaid doesn’t deserve it.
I believe that riders who have doped ought to afford the same opportunity for rehabilitation as other professionals who have broken rules. They do their time and then they return to their profession. We may not like it, but we’ve put a system of justice in place we profess to support. I’ll also add that I don’t have a problem with a four-year suspension for a first offense, but I think societies need to be able to show compassion and forgiveness and lifetime bans should only be warranted in extreme circumstances.
But this not knowing gnaws at me. It eats at my enjoyment of the sport.
Which brings me to the ultimate winner of the Amgen Tour of California, Tejay van Garderen. Van Garderen is of a generation of American cyclists who have been outspoken about drug-free racing. They speak in a way that suggests credibility and ethical behavior.
Here again, the UCI’s credibility is so undermined that it’s hard to celebrate van Garderen to the degree he deserves. I believe he’s a clean rider, but I don’t trust the system and that leaves a mild stain on him. I’d like a report issued once a month by Michael Ashenden in which he spells out who he has every confidence is clean and which riders are under suspicion. Van Garderen deserves better than what he’s getting. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent, and likely the next guy who could induce another bike boom in the U.S. But the moment people suggest he’s the next big thing for American cycling, he’ll be compared to Armstrong, which will cause him to be painted with the same doper brush, which is why it’s so important that if this guy is as clean as I think he is, we need solid proof to convince what will be a rightfully skeptical world.
The 2012 season has seen cycling attain some remarkable landmarks, including the first Canadian racer to win the Giro d’Italia, the first Brit to win the Tour de France, and the biggest-ever crowds to watch an Olympic road race. The year has also seen the sport dragged through its most damaging doping scandal in the ongoing USADA case against Lance Armstrong and his longtime team manager and business partner Johan Bruyneel. But with pro cycling now emerging as one of the cleanest sports in the world, there are many more feel-good stories to report than bad-news yarns. I’ve divided my A to Z review of a momentous season into two parts, starting this week from Armstrong to Magni.
A is for Armstrong. That’s the one whose first name is Kristin. The 39-year-old American came back from starting a family to brilliantly defend her Olympic women’s time trial gold medal at the London Games, defeating reigning world champion Judith Arndt by 15 seconds in the 29-kilometer event.
B for Boonen. Belgium’s perennial road star, Tom Boonen, returned to his very best form to ace four of the cobbled spring classics: Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem and E3 Prijs Vlaanderen. Later in the year he won the Belgian national road championship, took the first edition of the two-day World Ports Classic, won the semi-classic Paris-Brussels, and helped his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team win gold in the inaugural world team time trial championship for pro squads.
C for Contador. Spanish fans (and his Saxo Bank team boss Bjarne Riis) were ecstatic when Alberto Contador returned from his much-delayed Clenbuterol-positive suspension to win the Vuelta a España for a second time. Whatever others think about his doping ban, the 29-year-old Spaniard earned the Vuelta win with an audacious solo move far from the finish of stage 17 between Santander and Fuente Dé, to dispossess national rival Joaquin Rodriguez from the leader’s red jersey.
D for Dombrowski. Only two years ago, Joe Dombrowski was a skinny teenager from Virginia who was given the chance to try out with the U.S. development team, Trek-Livestrong, by its director Axel Merckx. Today, he’s about to enter the UCI WorldTour with Team Sky after an amazing under-23 season with Bontrager-Livestrong that saw Dombrowski use his climbing skills to win two mountain stages and the overall title of Italy’s GiroBio; and take top-10 finishes at the Tour of the Gila, Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge. Tomorrow: the world.
E for Erythropoietin. Just when we thought we’d maybe heard the last of EPO in cycling, this blood-boosting drug again hit the headlines in 2012. And not just from former U.S. Postal Service team riders in their testimonies given in the USADA investigation (see “U for USADA”). Among those foolish enough to use and test positive for EPO were a wide range of athletes, including Tour of Turkey “winner” Ivailo Gabrovski of Bulgaria; French domestique Steve Houanard of the AG2R team; South African veteran David George, a U.S. Postal team rider 12 years ago; and two Gran Fondo New York prize winners, American David Anthony and Italian Gabriele Guarini.
F for Froome. If you’d told Chris Froome 15 months ago that by the end of 2012 he’d finish second at the Tour de France (and win a mountain stage), place second and fourth at the Vuelta a España, come fourth at the Dauphiné, and win a bronze medal in the London Olympics time trial, he’d have said, “You must be joking.” But that’s what this Team Sky rider has just accomplished. Not bad for a bookish 27-year-old born in Kenya and raised in South Africa who now races for Great Britain.
G for Gerrans. The Australian owners of the brand-new Orica-GreenEdge team could barely believe their luck when Simon Gerrans began their tenure by winning the year’s first two races: the Aussie national title and the Tour Down Under. And it only got better, with Gerrans taking his first monument, Milan-San Remo, in March; placing second at the Clasica San Sebastian in August; and winning the GP de Québec in September.
H for Hesjedal. Ever since he was winning top mountain bike races in his early-20s (he narrowly lost the 2003 world cross-country championship to Filip Meirhaeghe, who would later test positive for EPO), Ryder Hesjedal knew he had exceptional talent for cycling. After years of riding tirelessly for other team leaders, he blossomed at Team Slipstream with sixth overall at the 2010 Tour de France, and this year showed all his exceptional ability, climbing talent and grit to become the first Canadian to win the Giro d’Italia. He did it with great consistency: Garmin won the early team time trial at Verona; Hesjedal was heroic on the summit finishes at Rocca di Cambio, Cervinia, Cortina, Alpe di Pampeago and the Passo di Stelvio, and he crowned his victory over Joaquim Rodriguez in the final-stage time trial though the streets of Milan.
I for Iglinskiy. For most of his nine years as a pro racer, Maxim Iglinskiy has worked as a domestique for team leader and fellow Kazakh, Alexander Vinokourov, while still winning the occasional race. This spring, he emerged from the Astana veteran’s shadows by placing second to Fabian Cancellara at Italy’s Strade Bianche classic (a race he won in 2010), and then grinding out a late victory over Vincenzo Nibali at the last of the spring classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
J for Jensy. Every bike-racing fan loves the aggressive riding of German veteran Jens “Jensy” Voigt, 40, who out-did himself in 2012 with nine months of solid racing from January to September for RadioShack-Nissan. The highlights included top-three stage finishes at Paris-Nice, the Tour of California and Tour de France—and then a magnificent stage victory on the Aspen-Beaver Creek stage of Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge, riding alone for 150 kilometers in rain and wind over Independence Pass and Battle Mountain.
K for Kulhavy. He wasn’t the favorite to win gold in the men’s cross-country at the London Olympics, but Czech mountain biker Jaroslav Kulhavy, 27, took one of the most exciting wins off-road racing has seen in a sprint finish with Swiss rival Nino Schurter. Kulhavy, the 2011 world champion, hadn’t won a major race all year before the Olympics. He went on to win the biggest French mountain-bike race, the marathon Roc d’Azur, ahead of Specialized teammate Christoph Sauser—and there’s talk that Kulhavy may convert to road racing in future seasons.
L for Lance. Some 18 months after his final bike race, Lance Armstrong was no longer a seven-time Tour de France winner, but merely a former world and U.S. road champion, the first American to win European classics (Flèche Wallonne and Clasica San Sebastian), along with a host of North American victories, after USADA (see “U is for USADA”) stripped him of all his post-cancer results because of doping.
M for Magni. Italian legend Fiorenzo Magni died in October at age 91. Known as the Lion of Flanders for his three consecutive victories at the Tour of Flanders (1949, ’50 and ’51), he also won three editions of the Giro d’Italia (1948, ’51 and ’55) and three Italian road titles. They were amazing accomplishments in an era when Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi were also at their zenith. An accomplished businessman until his death, Magni is also remembered for bringing the first non-cycling sponsor to the sport: Nivea began as his team’s title sponsor in 1954.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson
Boonen image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Contador image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Generally speaking, we try not to violate the fourth wall and directly acknowledge our work by shining a light on the fact that what we do here is write about, analyze about, obsess about cycling. That’s as obvious as sunlight. But this is one of those days. The cycling world has gone pure red state/blue state in its outrage/relief/shock/dissatisfaction with the announcement that Lance Armstrong has decided to concede game, set and match to USADA and Travis Tygart. No matter what you think of Armstrong, it’s unlikely that the outcome has left you feeling better about the sport of cycling. And that’s the real tragedy of the situation. It’s as if someone took the blue out of the sky.
Which is why the current racing in Colorado is so great. Forgetting for a moment that the event has the misfortune to have been given the generically anonymous USA Pro Cycling Challenge (they really couldn’t do better than that?), it is the perfect antidote to what ails cycling.
For starters, the event is showcasing the new generation of American riders, a crop of talent that seems united in their repudiation of a previous generation’s doping. Sure, they could be lying, but for now, there’s something in the attitude of guys like Tejay Van Garderen and Joe Dombrowski that makes the idea that they are clean easy to swallow. That Van Garderen is leading the race is perhaps the best thing to happen in American cycling this year, other than his near-podium finish at the Tour de France.
It wasn’t so many years ago that guys like Bobby Julich were racing for the U.S. National Team and telling stories of how they got into cycling as a result of seeing the Coors’ Classic pass through their town. Each generation has drawn inspiration from its homegrown riders as if passing a fledgling passion from one kid to another was as easy as handing off a torch. But inspiration has no baggage, so maybe it is.
That Van Garderen is leading the race (if only by a fraction of a second) confirms what we saw at the Tour. This kid is the real deal and we can expect to be cheering for him, getting autographs from him and thumbtacking posters of him for years to come. And honestly, one of my favorite story lines about him is how cycling was passed down to him by his father; cycling is a family sport.
Day after day we’ve seen stages result in the kinds of victories that satisfy our sense of what winning ought to be. In 1996, Chris Horner was riding for a tiny pro team that barely got invited to the Tour DuPont. Horner managed to get into a two-man breakaway with the comparative veteran Nate Reiss, riding for the U.S. Postal Service Team. In what was then seen as a total upset, Horner bested Reiss, and in doing so gave us a new champion to cheer for. Van Garderen’s win over Christian Vande Velde on stage two may not have had the surprise that Horner’s win did, but carried the same storyline of the new generation overtaking the old guard.
But if ever there was a time or a place for a wily old dog to enjoy a day in the sun, Jens Voigt’s solo breakaway on stage 4 into Beaver Creek. How it is that this German rider has become so beloved by American fans is at once obvious as the love of your mother and yet mysterious as a question from the Sphinx. To have him execute the longest solo breakaway of the race, indeed one of the longest successful breakaways of the whole season seems scripted by Hollywood. Even so, we’re as satisfied as when Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star. Whew.
The talent of the riders aside, and our belief that we’re viewing a remarkably clean peloton aside, the real star of this race is the state of Colorado. California boasts more bike companies, more bike races, factors more of cyclists and roads than Colorado. But the Rocky Mountain State is to bike racing in North America what the Louvre is to art—its spiritual home. It would be easy to attribute this in its entirety to the Coors’ Classic, but there’s more to it than that. Colorado is full of big spaces. Roads can run for miles with little direction change. The Rocky Mountains are photogenic in the instinctive way teenage girls are—every new view is untrained, yet memorable. And to see those roads in person … one needn’t be a cyclist to want to ride them.
But there’s more to a great race than a bunch of skinny guys turning the cranks with the speed of an electric motor. Once you’ve got the right racers and the right course, then you need fans. Colorado has turned out its populace (and borrowed from elsewhere) in a way that has impressed even the racers. No less a booster of California than Levi Leipheimer praised the fans on the Boulder stage for turning out in a manner even greater than what he’s seen at the Tour of California. I’ve noted on several occasions that huge crowds have been present, crowds easily as big as some that I’ve seen at the Tour of California, but in places that had a fraction of the warm bodies. There’s the feeling that this race is drawing out a bigger chunk of people present.
Finally, there’s a certain chemistry that seems to make the entire business heady, like a beguiling perfume radiating off your date. Watching the riders ride backward on the course and high-five the fans gave me chills. It was a kind of gratitude witnessed too rarely in sports, as much a payback as a benediction for all those fans whose cheers gave the riders a bump in wattage in those final kilometers. Even for the fans at home, ads like the campaign from New Belgium Brewing showing the guy riding the old cruiser and touting the line, “Enjoy the ride,” eschew transaction for bliss, an anti-consumption pitch, a reminder that we should get out there while the sun is still up.
Images: Doug Pensinger and Garrett Ellwood, Getty Images
Even longtime cycling fans sometimes wonder what’s happening in bike races. Take this week’s opening road stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné. It looked like a fairly straightforward race day when a breakaway went clear from the start, but why did Orica-GreenEdge, the team of race leader Luke Durbridge, let the leaders create a 13-minute gap, forcing other teams to conduct the chase? And why couldn’t the sprinters’ teams close down the attacks in the finale before BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans snagged the stage win in precocious fashion?
The first question is easier to answer. Having the yellow jersey at races like the Dauphiné can be a mixed blessing. To win the flat prologue ahead of such a strong field was a coup for Australian rookie Durbridge, but he’s never going to be a top climber, so keeping the overall lead was not a high priority. Durbridge’s focus this season is trying for an Olympic time trial medal in London, so rather than defending a yellow jersey he’d be better off saving his energy for this Thursday’s long, 53.5-kilometer TT stage of the Dauphiné. And that’s what he did.
What was more interesting on Monday was that the chase behind the breakaways was initially taken up by Evans’s BMC men, not by the Sky team of prologue runner-up and defending Dauphiné champion Brad Wiggins. Evans himself went back to his team car to talk with his directeur sportif, John Lelangue, before getting teammates Michael Schär and Manuel Quinziato to push the pace at the head of the peloton.
In contrast, Wiggins, who’d take over the GC from Durbridge, was not eager to wear the yellow jersey and said at the post-stage press conference, “At one point [in my career] I would have been happy to wear the maillot jaune. Now, I can’t say that I’m upset, but I’d rather wear my Sky skinsuit for Thursday’s time trial, so I’d prefer to lose a few seconds between now and then.”
As a result, it was BMC that virtually closed down the breakaway, and then on a Cat. 3 climb in the last 12 kilometers, it was BMC’s Philippe Gilbert who joined one of several attacks before Evans counterattacked to join the key move after the summit. With the Aussie superstar were local French rider Jérôme Coppel of Saur-Sojasun and Kazakh veteran Andrey Kashechkin of Astana. “I knew that there could be some splits [on the climb],” Coppel said later, “and that once we were over the top of the hill the road didn’t go down right away.”
It was understandable that Coppel, in his “hometown” race, would ride as hard as he could with Evans, but it was surprising that the Kazakh also gave a few pulls to sustain the break over the final 5 kilometers. Five years after he was suspended for blood doping (shortly after the same verdict for his team leader Alexander Vinokourov), Kashechkin, 32, is trying to re-establish himself with team Astana; but, other than team-time-trial performances, he hadn’t taken a top-10 placing since his comeback to racing until his third place behind Evans and Coppel on Monday.
Maybe Kashechkin has hopes of replicating the third place overall he took at the 2007 Dauphiné, but at this year’s race he should be riding support for Astana teammate Jani Brajkovic, the 2010 Dauphiné champ, and not helping Evans gain what was a three-second gap at the end. As Lelangue told L’Équipe after the stage, “At the Dauphiné, every second is always good to take.”
Evans himself said he hadn’t planned on winning the stage, but “I enjoy being in these sort of moves.” His strong pulls and eventual dynamic uphill sprint were reminiscent of a certain Bernard Hinault, the five-time Tour de Franc winner who also took the Dauphiné three times. Evans has placed second four times at this prestigious French stage race, so maybe this is his year to win it for the first time before going on to shoot for a second Tour victory.
Among the BMC rider’s most serious opposition at the Tour will be the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team’s battery of stars. The team’s theoretical Tour team leader Andy Schleck is riding as he usually does at pre-Tour stage races, and he’ll likely test his climbing legs on one of the Dauphiné’s three mountain stages over the weekend; but signs from last week’s Tour of Luxembourg were very positive for the U.S.-sponsored squad.
On the decisive climbing stage on Saturday, only the sturdy Dutch climber Wout Poels of Vacansoleil could stay with The Shack attack by Fränk Schleck, Andreas Klöden and Jakob Fuglsang on the short but steep Col de l’Europe (1.5km averaging 7.6 percent), which they climbed three times at the end of the 206km stage.
In contrast to Evans’s unrehearsed breakaway at the Dauphiné, the Schleck-Klöden-Fuglsang demonstration was very much premeditated, and it is just the type of multi-pronged move that the team can be expected to engineer at the Tour next month, especially when you add into the equation RadioShack’s other climbers Chris Horner, Maxime Montfort and the younger Schleck, along with such explosive riders as Fabian Cancellara, Linus Gerdemann and Jens Voigt.
GIRO AND CALIFORNIA
While on the subject of why people make certain moves and others don’t, it’s worth taking a brief look back at last month’s Giro d’Italia and Amgen Tour of California. For example, why did 2004 Giro winner Damiano Cunego twice go out on long breakaways on the first two mountain stages, probably knowing that the moves wouldn’t be successful? Why did Horner, the defending Amgen champ, attack so far from the Mount Baldy finish on the decisive stage, leaving behind a breakaway group he had engineered with Voigt and two other teammates on the opening climb? And why did race favorites at both the Giro and the California tour wait so long before making aggressive moves—or simply waited and waited and never took risks?
Sometimes, the riders themselves can’t exactly explain their actions (or non-actions). They often act on instinct and even, at times, ignore the instructions given to them by their directeurs sportifs. But in the case of experienced riders such as Cunego, his Lampre-ISD sports director Robert Damiani and co-team leader Michele Scarponi, you can bet that the Italian rider’s actions were well thought out, even if they were impromptu.
On the first stage in the high mountains of the Giro, in cold and wet weather, Cunego reacted to a solo attack by the Venezuelan climber José Rujano, a few kilometers from the summit of the Col de Joux with about 90 minutes of racing still ahead before the mountaintop finish at Cervinia. Cunego had to work hard, sprinting out of the saddle on the long, steady climb just to get close to Rujano’s wheel—and when the Venezuelan slowed on the descent, Cunego plowed on alone before catching the day’s early break and eventually dropping back and being passed by the more conservative favorites.
Cunego made a similar move on the next day’s stage 15, again in cold, wet conditions, and both days he allowed teammate Scarponi to sit quietly in the small pack of leaders before making his own accelerations on each day’s summit finish. Scarponi didn’t win the Giro. but his efforts actually keyed the attacks by longtime leader Joaquim Rodriguez.
Because the toughest two mountain stages of the Giro came at the very end of the three weeks, everyone was hesitant to enter the red zone too early on any of the summit finishes. And even then, anyone who watched the riders finishing one by one, and in states of massive fatigue, on Alpe di Pampeago could see that this was a Giro fought to the very last breath. And the man with the most endurance, the strongest teammates and the best time trial was the man who deservedly won: Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda.
Over in California, the decision was always going to be made on Mount Baldy, the second-to-last day, because none of the stages before the stage 5 Bakersfield time trial were well-enough structured to avoid group sprints. By uncharacteristically conceding more than two minutes to the other main contenders (and placing a lowly 42nd in the time trial!), Horner ruled himself out of repeating his 2011 overall victory. Or so it seemed.
His jumping up to the first break on the Baldy stage and driving it with three RadioShack teammates was a gutsy and totally unexpected development that showed the true level of Horner’s ambitions. And when, after Voigt was cooked, Horner jumped clear of the break (with Colombian climber Jhon Atapuma on his wheel), he had a margin of more than three minutes on a desperately chasing field. And overall victory still seemed possible.
Ideally, the Californian would have had one more teammate. And in a perfect world, that man would have been Matt Busche, but last year’s Baldy hero was having a bad day and just surviving back in the peloton. So in the circumstances Horner had no choice but to make his solo attempt (Atapuma barely helped) with almost 40 kilometers (most of it uphill) still to go. It was an epic performance and augers well for Horner and his team to make the upcoming Tour de France one where tactics and teammates will be more important than ever before.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Maxim Iglinskiy’s impressive, yet shocking victory at the 98
th Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday ended a spring classics season that lived up to current expectations: predictably unpredictable.
Last year, the wins by Matt Goss (at Milan-San Remo), Nick Nuyens (Tour of Flanders) and Johan Vansummeren (Paris-Roubaix) came out of left field, while not even Philippe Gilbert believed he could do the Amstel Gold Race-Flèche Wallonne-Liège triple. This year, the upset winners were Simon Gerrans (San Remo), Enrico Gasparotto (Amstel) and Iglinskiy, while Tom Boonen’s sweep through the cobbled classics was just as unexpected as Gilbert’s hat trick in 2011.
Most of the factors that led to the season’s upset results were present at this past weekend’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège—which is arguably the toughest of all the spring classics and usually the most predictable. Not this time. To find out who are the biggest favorites to win La Doyenne (“the Oldest One”) fans generally turn to Europe’s most respected sports newspaper, L’Équipe.
For Sunday’s race, the French publication’s list began with its hottest picks: 5 stars for defending champion Gilbert and Flèche Wallonne winner Joaquim Rodriguez; 4 stars for Olympic road champ Samuel Sanchez; 3 stars for two-time Liège winner Alejandro Valverde, three-time podium finisher Fränk Schleck and Gilbert’s former lieutenant Jelle Vanendert; two stars for Flèche Brabançonne winner Thomas Voeckler, San Remo winner Gerrans and fresh-from-the-Giro del Trentino Damiano Cunego; and, just one star for Amstel winner Enrico Gasparotto and on-form Vincenzo Nibali.
If Europe’s supposedly best-informed journalists selected 11 favorites and didn’t even name Iglinskiy as an outsider then who would have picked the Kazakh? Furthermore, their long shots, Nibali and Gasparotto, ended up in second and third places. What no one—except perhaps the wily Astana Proteam manager Giuseppe Martinelli—really considered was that (1) the Kazakh-financed squad had been racing well all week, and (2) Iglinskiy had been released from the cannon-fodder role he usually plays because veteran team captain and two-time Liège winner Alexander Vinokourov was searching for better form at the Tour of Turkey.
Sunday morning, Vinokourov, 38, called Iglinskiy, 31, at his Liège hotel, telling him it was a race he could win and advising him to be patient. “He told me to stay cool and do my best,” Iglinskiy said at his post-race press conference.
Schlecks suffer in the cold
With heavy rain and hail showers, and strong winds blowing from the southwest, the outward passage from Liège to the border town of Bastogne followed the organizers’ slowest schedule of 38 kph. None of the favored teams bothered to put a rider in the early breakaway, and an indication of how the race would play out only came when Rodriguez’s Katusha teammates increased the tempo to cut the break’s lead from 12 minutes to two by the time the first serious climbs came with 100 of the 257.5km race still to go.
On the ultra-steep Stockeu climb (where Eddy Merckx would usually start the attacks that earned him a record five wins at Liège), it looked like Fränk Schleck was going to have a good day. His brother Andy was sitting on the wheels of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek teammates Chris Horner and Jan Bakelants, making the pace high enough to shed the peloton’s weaker elements, while Maxime Montfort, who comes from this part of Belgium, was taking care of the elder Schleck.
Looks clearly deceived on this occasion, because Horner and the Schleck brothers were all suffering from the cold, wet conditions and faded from view on the windswept plateau before descending to the Ourthe Valley and the crucial climb of La Redoute. Describing the RadioShack team’s effort, Montfort said, “The key point in the race was 10km before La Redoute [when] you have to fight to be in good position. But right then it was raining and so cold it was almost snowing. We were thinking more about getting our rain jackets instead of moving up.”
Team manager Johan Bruyneel confirmed his riders’ physical (and mental) state: “[When] Fränk came back to the car [for his jacket], he was shaking, quite frozen….” As for Horner, he confirmed that he and his team leader were badly placed at that point. “I started at the back on La Redoute [and] if you start at the back on an important climb, you aren’t going to make anything happen. Today, I got too cold, so things went bad there,” Horner said on his team Web site. “It’s difficult to race when you weigh 63 kilos (139 pounds) and it’s this cold.”
With his numb hands unable to use the brake levers safely, Horner abandoned the race, along with his hard-man teammate Jens Voigt and their colleagues Joost Posthuma and Laurent Didier. At the end of the day, Andy Schleck and Bakelants would finish in a 25-man group 5:39 back, while brother Fränk was the best of the team, placing 23rd in a 20-man group with Montfort, 2:11 down.
BMC raced with honor
When the RadioShack team’s challenge disappeared, Gilbert’s BMC Racing squad fulfilled its responsibilities for the race favorite. American workhorse Brook Bookwalter pulled the peloton through the frigid weather (as low as the high-30s Fahrenheit) over the wearing climbs of the Rosier, Maquisard and Mont-Theux before his compatriot Tejay Van Garderen took over. They were riding at a high level and high pace to answer a danger posed by Europcar’s Pierre Rolland and Movistar’s Vasil Kiryienka, both strong climbers, who counterattacked over the Haute-Levée climb, with 85km to go, and quickly caught the morning’s six-man break.
“It was necessary to make the race harder to favor Thomas [Voeckler],” Rolland said, referring to his team leader. Rolland — who won the 2011 Tour de France stage at L’Alpe d’Huez — traveled to the race straight from Italy’s Trentino stage race, where he placed 10th on last Friday’s Pordoi mountaintop finish. The young Frenchman’s efforts on the climbs split the lead group apart and after La Redoute, only Kiryienka, one of Valverde’s teammates, and the Italian Dario Cataldo of Omega-Quick Step, could match him.
Ironically, while Rolland and Kiryienka were making the race hard over La Redoute, 34.5km from the finish, their team leaders were struggling on the climb’s lower slopes. First, Voeckler hit the deck: “It was raining and perhaps I skidded on a manhole cover,” he said. His teammate Cyril Gautier waited for his leader but Voeckler had to go it alone up the Redoute’s double-digit-percentage grades. It was here that Valverde, also suffering from the cold, dropped his chain and changed bikes with teammate Angel Madrazo.
Voeckler made a huge effort to make it back to the small group of leaders, still being led by Van Garderen, but Valverde would not. As for another Spanish favorite, Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, his day started badly when his best teammate Igor Anton crashed in the streets of Liège and broke his collarbone. Things got worse when Sanchez’s rear derailleur broke at the foot of the Stockeu “wall” and he had to chase for a long time when the race was heating up over the Haute-Levée and Rosier climbs. Showing his resilience (and his downhill skills on the mostly slick descents), Sanchez came through to take an eventual seventh place.
As has happened in each of the five times it has been included in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Roche aux Faucons climb saw the decisive moments of the race. In front, Rolland dropped his last companions, while Van Garderen finally pulled over after his marathon effort at the front to let teammate Santambrogio keep setting the pace for Gilbert. The American team’s impressive show left Gilbert in the place he needed to be, but when you are not on your very best form it’s impossible to fake it in a race as long and tough as this one—especially in conditions that were cold and wet one moment, and still cold and windy when the sun came out.
So Gilbert was in the ideal position going up the Faucons climb, which starts on a wide residential street and ends on a narrow rural back road between tall trees. The Belgian champion was able to follow the first attacks by Nibali and Vanendert after they passed Rolland, but he was slow to take up the chase behind Nibali when the Italian accelerated after going over the top a couple of lengths clear. Gilbert got within 30 meters of the Liquigas rider on the downhill, but that was it. Nibali was flying clear with the wind at his back.
“I tried to follow Nibali but I put myself in the red and couldn’t recuperate,” Gilbert said. “From that point on, I knew it would be difficult for me.” Indeed, when the group split in two on the uncategorized climb 2km after the Roche aux Faucons, Gilbert was in the back half.
Ahead, the chase was taken up by the three teams still with two or three riders: Astana, Katusha and Europcar. As a result, the long downhill through Seraing (where the opening road stage of the Tour de France will finish on July 1) resulted in rapid, yet tactical racing, with Rodriguez and Iglinskiy emerging as Nibali’s only challengers.
Battle on Saint-Nicolas
Working together, the little Spanish climber and the solid Kazakh team rider were faster on the crosswind sections before reaching the vicious ascent of Saint-Nicolas—which starts with a 10-percent pitch up a narrow street through this working-class neighborhood and ends with a couple of steep turns before reaching a kilometer of flatter roads high above the city of Liège.
It was on this climb where the road was exposed to the crosswinds that the race was won and lost. Gilbert fell off the pace in the chase group. The cold and distance got to Rodriguez, who could only watch as Iglinskiy rode away from him up the hill, while Garmin-Barracuda’s Dan Martin climbed past the Katusha man with Rolland on his wheel (they’d both be caught on the run-in to the finish). And Nibali struggled, his body jerking with the effort as he sat in the saddle, unable to get more speed or power into his pedals.
Over the top, with 5.5km to go, Iglinskiy had closed from a 40-second to a 15-second deficit. And his catch of the leader within sight of the one-kilometer-to-go archway was inevitable. After Iglinskiy rode clear to a 21-second victory, Nibali was close to tears following his epic yet finally heartbreaking effort. “I don’t think I made any mistakes,” he told reporters. “I just lacked a little strength in my legs in the finale. There was lots of wind on Saint-Nicolas and I left most of my strength there.”
Over at the Astana team car, where they were celebrating the squad’s second upset win in eight days, with first Gasparotto and now Iglinskiy. Their directeur sportif Guido Bontempi said, “It’s a big surprise for us. We prepared the race from Gasparotto’s perspective, but we gave carte blanche to Iglinskiy, to react according to the circumstances. And that’s what he did….”
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I ache for Thomas Voeckler. I ache for Andy Schleck. I ache for the end of the Tour de France.
In a tweet today David Millar wrote that as he rode in his car back to the hotel they approached a rider in Europcar kit; they slowed and Millar turned to lock eyes with a “tired and broken” Voeckler, adding, “Tragic doesn’t come close to describe.”
The cynical among us will gouge Voeckler for hubris, for dreaming the impossible. To do so is to inject cyanide into the very notion of ambition. That he discovered immortality seemingly within his grasp and dared reach for it is to be human. I admire that he maintained humility enough to insist that he would lose the race even as it was obvious he’d mortgage his home for an extra 20 watts.
That he rode the finest time trial of his life today is, perhaps the greatest honor he could bestow on himself and the race; yes, he honored the Tour de France today with his ride. It was his greatest ride because it showed his real character. Unlike so many riders who slink to the back of the field to nurse their destroyed legs once a win slips from grasp, Voeckler did the unthinkable. He continued to ride like a contender, even when it would no longer reward him. How else do you tell the world you’ve come to believe, not just in yourself, but even that you’re a part of what may be a new cycling?
That again. Yes, I do believe that his performance says that the peloton is cleaner. Kolobnev and his new honorific aside—don’t get me started—what I hope, what I’d like to think is that for the riders who may really achieve something noteworthy, maybe they’ve gotten the message that those of us who actually care about the sport want them to do it without the drugs. Voeckler has, for my money, delivered the defining ride of this year’s Tour de France. I’ll always remember 2011 for Cadel Evans’ victory, but I hope that the years don’t fade Voeckler’s ride in yellow for me. For each of us who ever dared dream, his days in yellow and his ride today testify to what we may find within reach.
Next year, he’ll arrive with the bit between his teeth. For that, I can’t wait.
If you’d asked me yesterday how I’d feel once Evans accomplished what most of us thought was an essentially foregone conclusion, I’d have told you I’d be happy for him. He rode with confidence and authority. Who knows if the tactical genius that caused him to conserve when possible and burn any time he needed to deliver was his or his director’s. It hardly matters. His yellow jersey is our res ipsa loquitur.
What surprises me is how I view the remarkable reversal of fortune Andy Schleck has suffered. Second. Again. The comparisons to Raymond Poulidor are unavoidable now. Even if he does win someday, his record will be compared to every great rider who failed more than he succeeded. Unless, of course, this is the last of his non-wins for a while.
And while I do think he’s likely to win at some point, I’ll tell you now, unless Contador makes the same mistake again next year (if you can call victory in the Giro a mistake—and I know that’s a real stretch), the Spaniard will arrive at the start with a thirst for blood that even Eric Northman would admire. I don’t plan to bet against him.
I’ve been rough on Contador in the past. Let me say this: His ride will be a more enduring feature of this year’s race than Fränk Schleck’s was. He rode with determination and pride, even after he knew he couldn’t win. He never capitulated, and in that regard, he and Voeckler have something in common.
It’s fair to wonder if Contador will be at next year’s Tour, depending how the CAS proceeding goes. Its postponement has turned his case into a goat parade: something so stupidly slow and pointless that no one can bear to watch. Should the case against him be upheld and a suspension imposed, I say let it stand for time served. Re-writing this year’s Tour de France will be as distasteful as a shot of straight alcohol. Isopropyl, that is.
Whatever he may or may not have done last year was last year, if he doesn’t test positive this year, then let the clean result stand.
Back to Schleck the younger: I think I have some sense of his pain. The buildup to him taking the maillot jaune off Voeckler was so slow and yet seemingly assured as to be steamroller inevitable. To see him stripped of it only 24 hours later was a change in tempo that would rattle any audience. I wonder just how comfortable he allowed himself to get in that jersey. Did he sleep in it last night just so he could have it against his body for as long as possible? We can’t fault him for hoping; Voeckler taught that master class. Still, no one can be surprised by this outcome and there surely is pain in that for Schleck.
Tomorrow the Tour de France ends, and that is my biggest ache of all. For me, the end of the Tour is nearly the end of summer itself. Monday has the crushing letdown that December 26 did when I was a child. Perhaps this is what a heroin or coke addict feels when they crash. That first post-Tour ride bears an emptiness in the air. It’s as if summer itself has gone stale. I buck up after a few days, but it’s been this way for me since ’86.
Finally, cycling isn’t really known for tracking its own statistics particularly well. We roll blindly into each new season, often without any clue as to what the past tells us about it. A fair chunk of my work for peloton magazine has looked at the sport’s history and what it tells us about some of our greatest racers and races. While I think numbers can be manipulated for nefarious purposes with greased ease (just consider gasoline), the Tour has something to say about Evans’ looming win. Tomorrow afternoon, the Aussie will become—at age 34—the oldest first-time winner of the Tour de France in the modern age.
What I think this tells us is that as racers have become more disciplined about all aspects of their training, from diet to rest to number of days raced, they are extending their careers. This shouldn’t surprise us; crashes notwithstanding, this is how guys like Jens Voigt and Chris Horner remain useful—scratch that, strong—with their 40th birthday around the corner.
There may be hope for us all.
Vive le Tour.
Image: Chris Wallis, 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
Last week several media outlets carried an open letter that UCI President Pat McQuaid wrote to the union of professional cyclists, the CPA. Published on the UCI’s site as well as VeloNews, McQuaid explained the problems with riders’ desire to use radios and how the riders’ voices have been heard.
He did this in a sprawling, at times rambling, nearly 2000-word letter. His bottom line came less than 400 words in the letter, effectively eliminating the need for three-quarters of his communiqué. So why are radios banned and why is the point beyond negotiation? We’ll get to that, but first, let’s look a bit at the document he drafted.
In McQuaid’s opening sentence he previews what I’ll go ahead and call a bit of cowardice. He says, “The discussions are heated….” How about give us a simple declarative statement. We know where the discussions stand. We don’t need him to set the scene. He should tell us something of his views and not passively. Take a stand. How about instead of “That is why I feel it is necessary to address you collectively to try to clarify some points in the debate that is unfortunately no longer calm and constructive.” just write, “I write to you today to clarify the UCI’s decision to ban race radios.”
McQuaid refers to the “progressive banning of earpieces”; just how he uses the modifier “progressive” is a bit of a mystery. Is he saying that the decision marks a progressive improvement in the sport, or is he referring to the fact that the ban wasn’t enacted all at once. Similarly, he states the debate is “no longer calm and constructive.” I’m not sure who he has been listening to, but points made by AIGCP President Jonathan Vaughters have been in my reading both respectful and entirely rational.
He ratchets up the rhetoric congratulating “most of you” for the ability to “up until now … remain reasonable.” By not calling out just who isn’t “remaining reasonable” he casts a broad net, damning many with his faint praise.
The letter is plagued with a series of undefined referents. The next one that troubled me was, “our sport has been susceptible to wide criticism.” Um, who are we discussing? Are we discussing stakeholders within the sport, or people outside the sport? I define stakeholders as riders, sponsors, directors, race organizers, equipment manufacturers, governing bodies and even fans. If we’re discussing “wide criticism” from within, define which stakeholder is leveling the criticism. If it’s from outside anyone we define as a stakeholder, who gives a shit? Obviously it’s unwise to govern the sport in a way that alienates potential sponsors, but if you don’t have any skin in the game, why should we care what you think?
Further confounding the reader’s search for clarity he refers to “this attitude.” Just what attitude is that? I’m guessing it’s the one that leveled “wide criticism,” but we have no idea who was doing the criticizing or just what that criticizing was. That said, he uses this vague reference to rhetorically wonder just what will set of the next conflict—presumably with the riders, though he doesn’t make that clear.
McQuaid finally reveals who the boogeyman in the race-radio ban scenario is: France Television. Apparently, executives at the network gave the UCI an ultimatum: get rid of radios or “television would be reduced.”
Where I come from this is colloquially referred to as blackmail.
Up until now we have all been led to believe that the decision to ban race radios was one made by the UCI and the UCI alone. Not only is this not the case, but McQuaid revealed a terrible weakness: He demonstrated that it is possible to blackmail the UCI and win, if what he says is true.
His next point concerns how German television (ARD and ZDF) have both dropped all cycling coverage because of doping. What he is attempting to do here is to draw an equivalency between race radios and doping. The logic goes: Doping caused two networks to drop cycling coverage. Less television coverage is bad; therefore doping is bad. Another network is threatening to drop cycling coverage because of race radios. Therefore race radios are bad. If race radios can do the same thing doping did—result in less cycling on television—then race radios are just as bad as doping.
People, I’m not making this up. McQuaid wants us to think of race radios as a no less a threat to cycling than doping.
Perhaps most disturbing is the second comparison he draws to doping. He writes,
“I would have preferred to leave doping out of this discussion, but I realise that I can’t resist pointing out a few facts on this subject …
“I don’t think that the riders are in the best position to remind us of the seriousness and the urgency of certain situations: if doping still exists, it’s is only because there are still riders who dope! And if it is true and undeniable that the habits of a large number of you have changed, it is also true that we are still confronted with a fairly high number of cases, which, despite the remarkable progress of our anti-doping results, means we are constantly in an environment of suspicion and tension faced with the public opinion.”
No one suggested he need refer to doping. There is no rational connection between the use of race radios and doping. By comparing the two, McQuaid unfairly paints many riders as dopers. Note his use of “large number” and “fairly high number.”
Just as insulting is his observation that the riders’ indignation, as evidenced by Jens Voigt’s and Grischa Niermann’s open letters, should be reserved for doping scandals. The suggestion here is that by not speaking out more forcefully when riders test positive they have somehow lost the right to complain.
McQuaid insists the UCI has listened to the riders, the teams, indeed anyone who believes race radios are helpful when he writes, “you have been falsely led to believe that the opinion of riders was never taken into consideration….”
What McQuaid and the whole of the UCI doesn’t understand is that riders don’t want a submission form for a newspaper-style letter to the editor. They want a seat at the table and a vote. When decisions are made about the competition they provide, they deserve a seat at the table and what is meant by a “voice” is a vote.
In short, a decision regarding race radios would be more easily viewed as democratic, and not unilateral, if each of the major stakeholders in the sport—riders, sponsors, directors, race organizers, networks and governing bodies—had a vote.
I’m surprised that no one has drawn a comparison between the Boston Tea Party and the ban on race radios. While the race radio ban isn’t a tax, both conflicts arise from the same dissatisfaction—no voice in the affairs that most concern them. Until you have a vote, you don’t have a voice. Period.
Suppose the UCI said, “We have come to realize that the speeds of the races are too great. To reduce speeds we will limit professional riders to a maximum gear of 40×17 to preserve their health; we have also determined that a flat bar will give riders a better vantage to see road hazards, thereby cutting down on accidents. Both these changes will give fans a greater opportunity to see their heroes as they ride by.” Would it be reasonable to expect the riders to compete in Milan-San Remo knowing their average speed might only be 33kph, making the race a nine-hour affair. Such a decision would affect the riders (by changing the nature of the racing), equipment manufacturers (think of the changes to bikes), team directors (changes in strategy), networks (changes in airtime) and race organizers (the length of road closures). Do you think each of those stakeholders would simply accept such a change made by the UCI?
Even if you dislike race radios, and I’ll admit that I was ambivalent on them for a while, I expect you can agree that riders deserve to vote on any decision that concerns them.
For now, though, that desire, no matter how reasonable some of us think it is, will remain unattainable. McQuaid’s patrician attitude demonstrates that he has no intention of giving riders a seat at the table. No matter; he has undermined his own authority with this letter, showing he is unwilling to take responsibility for decisions, and susceptible to blackmail. Even if McQuaid isn’t listening to the CPA, the CPA is listening to him.
Cycling can survive without the UCI, but the UCI can’t survive without cyclists.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
I’m not apologizing to Dickens, not after the last two days of racing. He couldn’t have seen this coming.
For the Schleck brothers and Team Saxo Bank the Dickens quote sums up the last two days in a few different ways.
Yesterday’s stage neutralization preserved Saxo Bank’s 1-2 GC punch. Lucky thing for them. So yes, they did benefit twice as much as other teams, after all, Lance Armstrong is the only GC threat Radio Shack is advertising; same for Alberto Contador at Astana.
But to preserve the Schlecks, Fabian Cancellara had to surrender the maillot jaune. History shows us no one does that happily, readily and rarely willingly. Established professional or not, surrendering the yellow jersey when you have good legs has got to hurt. It just hast to.
Less than 24 hours later Frank Schleck goes down on the pavé and breaks his collarbone. If teammate Jens Voigt’s reaction is any indication, Saxo Bank is devastated to lose its GC duo: “It was a daft decision to include this stage in the Tour. For months, we’ve said, people, this is too much of a spectacle, this is too dangerous, did they listen to us? No. And now Frankie has a broken collarbone. This is the last straw. I’m so disappointed.”
For most teams, securing the yellow jersey—yet again—could overcome the shock of losing almost any rider. Given the way they’ve ridden for the last ten years, this is doubly true for any French team.
What this needs is a reduction sauce: During stage 2, Team Saxo Bank surrendered the yellow jersey but managed to preserve the GC hopes for both Schlecks. In stage 3, Team Saxo Bank regained the yellow jersey—an event almost no one would have dared predict—but lost one of its most important GC riders.
We expect that the unexpected will take place in racing, that some riders will fall victim circumstances and by the time the race’s most strategic stages unfold the list of front runners might have changed somewhat; still it’s unfortunate to lose a rider due to a crash on cobblestone. To the degree that the cobblestones are meant to be a strategic focal point the intent is to force racers to be vigilant and stay up front, not take them out in crashes, though we understand that possibility is ever there.
Schleck’s departure and Cancellara’s regaining the yellow jersey may have been unexpected, but they weren’t the stage’s only surprises. To see Alberto Contador ride so well on the pavé was a genuine surprise, especially the way he gained time on his biggest rival, Lance Armstrong, who flatted on the cobbles.
In a day full of surprising turns, the one that most surprises me is Andy Schleck’s ride in hanging onto teammate Cancellara’s group as he drilled it to the finish. It’s hard for anyone to claim that they anticipated Cancellara regainin the yellow jersey, harder still to claim they could anticipate pavé virgin Contador’s good ride or Armstrong’s bad luck. However, almost no one would have been willing to bet that injured Andy Schleck would have gained time on the other favorites on a stage that was just flat but containing sections of road a climber just isn’t meant for.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Wow! I’ve not seen consensus like that in the RKP comments section since … uh … since … okay, I’ve never seen consensus like that here. To whit: Fabian Cancellara, Jens Voigt, Tomas Voekler, Jens Voigt, Philipe Gilbert, Oscar Freire, Michael Barry, George Hincapie, Sylvain Chavanel, Stuart O’Grady, Chris Horner, Johan VanSummeren, Thor Hushovd.
That list is notable for not containing the names: Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. World Champion Cadel Evans had a passing mention, but no real advocate. So, what I’m getting is that winning doesn’t give you class. It just gives you a trophy, a bouquet and lipstick smears on each cheek (also possibly a hotel key … I’ve heard stories).
The Cancellara lovefest just went on and on. Here is a rider of supreme power, humble demeanor and team first attitude, a guy who clearly loves his family and rides with a smile on his face. The guy’s so classy he probably eats his pomme frites with a knife and fork. He most assuredly never farts in elevators or litters. I actually think in Switzerland littering is a capital offense, so maybe that doesn’t count. But still….
We also heaped the love on Herr Voigt, though he’s a different sort of rider than Cancellara. Voigt is not so much a dominant winner as a hammer par excellénce, the guy who, as he passes you on the way to the front of the peloton, you think, “Crap! There goes the morning!” Oh, and he smiles. First he crushes you, and then he grins. Nothing says class like a man who can smile while YOUR heart is breaking.
Also, clearly deserving and oft mentioned, was Philipe Gilbert, who is not the fastest or most powerful, not the strongest climber or sharpest sprinter, but a tactician and all around attack-minded rider, the guy who lights up the one-day races like a halogen in a coat closet.
I, for one, need these riders desperately. As the revelations spew out of Festina and Puerto and Mantova and little, out-of-the-way sports clinics in Austria and Germany, I need to remember that there are riders of true class in the peloton. There ARE reasons to keep watching.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International